Aspen’s airline seats exceed Eagle County’s | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s airline seats exceed Eagle County’s

The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport had more available commercial airline seats than five of its top competing resorts last ski season — the first time that's happened in more than eight years.

The trend is expected to continue in 2014-15, thanks to the addition of more flights into Aspen, according to projections made by Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass and the local business community's liaison to the airline industry.

There were 201,682 seats on commercial flights arriving at Aspen's Sardy Field between Dec. 1 and April 30, according to Tomcich.

Meanwhile, available seats into the Eagle County Airport sagged to 196,037, according to Tomcich, who used seat-count information from Airports USA Aviation DataMiner Reports. Eagle County's seat counts have dropped each of the past eight seasons, according to Tomcich's report, which went back to 2006-07.

Aspen's numbers in 2013-14 also topped the number of commercial airline seats available at Jackson, Wyoming; Hayden, which serves Steamboat; Montrose, which serves Telluride; and Gunnison, which serves Crested Butte, according to Tomcich's report.

Jackson had 149,373 available seats. Hayden had 102,900. Montrose had 77,695, and Gunnison had 29,430.

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Christian Knapp, vice president of marketing for Aspen Skiing Co., said during a presentation to Aspen Chamber Resort Association members last week that the other resorts are scrambling to add seats.

"Trust me, they are all sitting around the table, raising money and focusing on how to get more air into their communities," he said.

Eagle County loses advantage

Aspen closed a huge gap that favored the Eagle County Airport over the past decade. In 2006-07, Eagle had 275,178 available seats on commercial aircraft. Aspen was a distant second among airports Tomcich compared, at 144,123 seats. Hayden and Jackson were right on Aspen's heels that season.

Since then, Eagle County and Hayden have lost seats. Jackson has gained, but not enough to keep pace with Aspen.

Aspen's "high water mark" in recent years was 228,940 seats in 2011-12.

"We lost a bunch of seats when Frontier pulled out two years ago," Tomcich said. But the available seats climbed last season and will climb again the coming winter, he said.

"That's two successive years of trend lines going the right direction," Tomcich said.

The current airline schedules would make 214,990 seats available in Aspen compared with 194,896 in Eagle County for the coming winter, Tomcich said. Jackson will have an estimated 154,474.

Airlines add Aspen flights

The three airlines serving Aspen have committed to additional flights this winter compared with last year. American Airlines will add a second flight daily from Dallas to Aspen from Dec. 18 until late in the ski season, Tomcich said.

Delta Air Lines will add a second inbound flight from Minneapolis to Aspen on Saturdays and a second outbound flight on Sundays.

United Airlines will add a fourth daily direct flight between Houston and Aspen from Dec. 18 through Jan. 5, Tomcich said.

Knapp told chamber members there will be as many as 200 flights weekly during peak season this winter.

Tomcich said the airlines serving Aspen tailor their flights to meet demands. United, for example, is offering as many as 30 flights daily from five hubs to Aspen at the busiest times of the season.

Eagle County's available seats are declining even though the number of flights is remaining at a high level, according to Tomcich. Airlines serving Eagle want higher percentages of seats filled — what the airline industry calls "load factor." American Airlines has been flying 757 jet aircraft with a capacity of 188 seats into Eagle. It's now using 319 jet aircraft with a capacity of 128 seats, he said.

Future uncertain

It's too difficult to forecast whether Aspen will keep its advantage of available seats over its competitors into the future, Tomcich said. High demand and limited competition make Aspen lucrative for the carriers that serve it because of the high fares, he said.

Nevertheless, only about 50 percent of out-of-state visitors during ski season fly into the Aspen airport.

"To be able to capture 100 percent is never going to happen," Tomcich said.

Aspen's edge in available commercial airline seats is tenuous, according to Tomcich and leaders in the business community. The CRJ700 jet aircraft that serves the Aspen market is nearing the end of its manufacturing life, he said. There are a "fair number" of the aircraft in use, so they won't disappear overnight after they aren't manufactured, he said. But "there will come a day, it could be 10 years down the road," when those aircraft won't be available, Tomcich said. Right now, they are the only jets that can serve Aspen because of the 95-foot limit on wingspan.

Pitkin County officials are leading discussions on a proposal to widen the runway and taxiways to accommodate aircraft with wider wingspans.

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