Aspen moves closer to funding air service
November 29, 2013
ASPEN — The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport has more available commercial flight seats this winter than any other mountain-resort airport in the country, but a new community group focused on local air service knows more has to be done in order to keep it that way.
Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Marketing Christian Knapp told a group of local residents and business owners at the Aspen Business Luncheon on Wednesday that the community has to step up efforts to support air service.
"It's important that we understand the importance of air service to our valley," Knapp said. "It's the lifeblood of a destination ski resort, and without it I can tell you it would not be the same situation here."
The situation is that the Aspen airport enjoys free-market conditions — namely higher fares — that aren't as prominent at other resort airports. The ability to charge such fares is what has allowed so many non-subsidized flights to thrive in the market, said Stay Aspen Snowmass President Bill Tomcich, who has been a lead negotiator with airlines for the Aspen community for years. But Knapp and Tomcich know the airport faces challenges in attracting new flight service unless there's a more sustainable fund for incentive packages in place.
When Knapp presented a slide showing the various programs in place at other resort airports — such as taxes that fund service at Yampa Valley (Steamboat Springs), Montrose (Telluride) and Gunnison-Crested Butte, plus broad-based business support in Jackson Hole and growing business support in Eagle County — a few folks at the luncheon looked surprised.
Knapp was also surprised when he learned there were no such programs in place for the Aspen airport.
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"(Other resort airports are) out there spending 3-plus million dollars, and we have a budget of zero," he said. "And that's every year."
The tide is changing, though, and Knapp said a new community group in Aspen is expected to make a public announcement at the beginning of next year revealing plans for future air-service support. The group has been meeting since March and includes representatives from the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, Snowmass Tourism, the city of Snowmass Village, the city of Aspen, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Aspen Skiing Co. and Stay Aspen Snowmass.
The group already has set a few goals to focus on for the next five years with the main priority being to incentivize new and existing airlines to increase flight service to Aspen.
Both Knapp and Tomcich were careful not to mention minimum-revenue guarantees, a practice that most other resort-airport fundraising groups use to attract air service. Minimum-revenue guarantees are revenue promises made to airlines — if a flight doesn't meet the agreed-upon revenue guarantee, the fundraising group pays it. Aspen has been able to succeed mostly without using the practice, but Knapp said some airlines might require it for new air service. The strong free market in Aspen presumably would remove the need for such a guarantee after a season or two of the new air service, though, he said.
The airport currently uses incentives, which may include things like offering to cover all of the marketing costs for a new flight. But with market-share competition increasing due to airline consolidation and a reduction in available seats, a simple incentive might not be enough.
Tomcich said there's a new study underway that also will examine what can be done at the airport to accommodate better flight service. One big question on the table is whether a runway widening is possible — an important question considering new aircraft designs entering the air industry in future years could be perfect for Aspen, except they have roughly 100-foot wingspans. The Aspen airport currently has a 95-foot wingspan restriction.
"Technology is going to continue to evolve; we must continue to prepare and adapt," Tomcich said. "We've got a very deliberate sequencing of events that needs to happen in order to plan for our future."
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 970-777-3125.