Aspen’s main carrier vows better service
ASPEN There might not be a white knight, in the form of a new airline, flying to Aspen to improve air service this ski season. There might not need to be.After a disastrous 2006-07 winter (see related story), officials from SkyWest Airlines, the Aspen business community and the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport vowed to work together to improve the quality, frequency and price of service.”It’s our top priority for this year,” said Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Marketing Jeanne Mackowski.It’s also a necessity. Aspen-Snowmass is a destination resort, which means the bulk of its business comes from out of state for overnight trips. Traditionally, 39 percent of Aspen-Snowmass customers flies directly into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Another 11 percent flies into Eagle. And 36 percent flies to Denver then rents cars or takes a shuttle.
That means 84 percent of winter tourists arrives by plane.Last year that didn’t work so well for many of them. Untimely blizzards and odd problems forced cancellations of 335 flights into Aspen affecting 15,000 travelers. Many locals hoped that service would improve through increased competition.Frontier Airlines is starting a new low-cost carrier called Lynx Aviation. Although it hasn’t announced what mountain markets it plans to serve with flights from Denver, Aspen is widely believed to be the apple of Lynx’s eye. The Aspen market provides the fledgling airline with a chance to fill planes at solid fares, according to airline industry observers. In other words, it can be a cash cow, at least during the heart of summers and winters.
It might be a moot point for this winter. It’s taken Frontier longer than company officials anticipated to acquire operating authority from the Federal Aviation Administration. The airline underestimated the length of time needed for the review.”As a result of Federal Aviation Administration reviews and workload, Lynx will not be in a position to operate flights as originally planned,” said a letter from Lynx officials to the U.S. Department of Transportation last month.Once approvals are in place, Lynx would have to train pilots for tricky conditions at mountain airports like Aspen’s. Timing is also working against new air service. Many tourists have booked their winter trips. Many don’t know about the possibility of Frontier service or they won’t want to gamble that they can get a seat on service later in the season.Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas downplayed expectations for serving ski resort markets this winter. “It doesn’t seem likely that we will have the opportunity to sell tickets for this winter,” he said by e-mail last week.Bill Tomcich, president of central reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the business community’s main liaison with the airlines, remains hopeful for Frontier service during the second half of ski season. When the carrier acquires its operating authority, he said, it will want to use the aircraft it acquired in the most lucrative markets. That works in Aspen’s favor, he said.
Aspen’s air service might improve even without the benefit of additional competition. This is the second winter that SkyWest Airlines has operated United Express flights into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. In an unprecedented move in July, 18 top officials with SkyWest and United visited Aspen to assure the Pitkin County Commissioners that service will improve this winter.SkyWest’s performance largely dictates how air travelers fare at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. United Express controls 84 percent of the market in Aspen, compared to 14.5 percent for Delta and 1.5 percent for U.S. Airways.The lion’s share of United Express service is operated by SkyWest, including all direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. SkyWest also operates the Delta service from Salt Lake City. SkyWest officials vowed to hire more workers this winter to avoid the staff shortages that contributed to many of the carrier’s problems last winter. Tomcich said SkyWest didn’t anticipate the problems it would face trying to recruit and retain enough workers last winter as a first-time employer in the Roaring Fork Valley. The carrier was chronically understaffed, with the number of workers dwindling to 69 from a goal of about 100 late in the winter. SkyWest salvaged the season by seeking temporary workers from its stations at other airports and depending heavily on help from its operation at Grand Junction. Marissa Snow, SkyWest’s manager of corporate communications, said the company has aggressively recruited employees for Aspen this season. “We’re shooting for a higher number to take care of our Aspen customers,” she said.The company has about 85 workers lined up now, she said. That number could swell to around 100.Retaining workers could be easier this year because SkyWest secured 10 two-bedroom apartments at the Burlingame affordable housing project near the airport, along with units at the Aspen Business Center and in Snowmass Village. Employees who cannot be housed will get a housing allowance, Snow said.”I think that’s where the most progress is being made, in staffing,” said Tomcich. Company officials also said they were reassessing the compensation package for Aspen workers. Snow said workers will be reimbursed for some of the cost of ski passes, the amount dependent on whether they are full- or part-time. Starting pay for Aspen workers will be $12 per hour this winter, Snow said.
While officials expect better quality of air service this winter, it appears there will be more quantity – even if Frontier isn’t cleared for takeoff.Tomcich said the airline schedule as of Oct. 5 showed there will be 163 flights per week between Jan. 7 and Feb. 12, compared to 153 per week last ski season.That translates into 10,575 seats per week into Aspen compared to 9,403 last year during the same period, he said, a 12.5 percent increase.Tomcich noted that published schedules frequently change, so those numbers could change one way or another as winter draws near.United Express will offer 22 flights per week from Chicago compared to 14 last year, and it will offer 14 nonstop flights from Los Angles compared to nine last year. The number of nonstop flights from San Francisco will remain at four per week.United Express also will offer 94 flights per week between Aspen and Denver, down from 98 flights last year. That service is operated by both SkyWest and Midway.There will be 22 flights per week from Salt Lake City into Aspen on Delta flights operated by SkyWest. That is the same number as last year.U.S. Airways Express is providing seven flights per week from Phoenix, one more than last year.”From Feb. 13 to April 5, the percentage increases are slightly less, although I am expecting more flight additions to the February and March schedules, just like we had last year,” Tomcich said.
Another significant change under consideration is “Plan B,” when aircraft cannot land in Aspen because of poor weather. Last year, flights were diverted to Denver, then passengers were transported by bus to Aspen and Snowmass. The trip was long for frustrated customers.SkyWest hopes the nonstop flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago – which normally avoid Denver – won’t be diverted there this winter when they cannot land in Aspen. Instead the airline wants to use Grand Junction as the diversion destination, Snow said.SkyWest is negotiating with a ground transportation company to provide service if and when it’s needed in 2007-08. That would reduce the bus ride by about two hours.Snow said a full staff should also improve SkyWest’s luggage-handling capabilities. The airline was pelted with complaints last winter about luggage that didn’t make the connection to Aspen flights in Denver, or couldn’t travel with its owner because of aircraft weight limits.The Aspen Skiing Co. and local lodging properties are trying to convince visitors who are flying to ship luggage separately, in advance, to their accommodations. The success of that effort is yet to be determined.One of the biggest changes this winter will be the way air travelers are treated at the Aspen airport terminal. The county commissioners stressed to SkyWest officials in July that airline passengers get frustrated when their flights departing Aspen are delayed by weather, and they cannot get straight answers from airline employees. They urged the carrier to do a better job of communicating with their customers.SkyWest created a new staff position for a worker who will mingle in the lobby with passengers, directing them to where they want to go and addressing their questions, Snow said.Pitkin County plans to supplement that effort. The county currently works with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to make sure at least one person staffs a guest-services booth in the terminal at all times. In its 2008 budget request, the airport administration proposes to boost the number of guest-services people on duty at any given time to three or four during the busy times of the winter, according to Director of Aviation Jim Elwood.The county is proposing to boost its expenditure for the guest-services program from $75,000 to nearly $300,000, Elwood said. He noted that the airport is an “enterprise fund” which raises the revenues to cover its expenses. Taxpayer money wouldn’t pay for the beefed-up guest-services program.The guest-services crew could assist passengers and act as their “advocates,” Elwood said. However, their ability to ease frustrations is limited since they won’t have access to all flight information.
The big unknown going into this ski season is how many customers were alienated last winter.Although visitors were angry over air service problems last winter, North of Nell Condominiums General Manager Joe Raczak doesn’t think it will keep people away.”I can probably count on one hand the people who said they wouldn’t come back to Aspen,” Raczak said.Tomcich, known for putting a positive spin on any situation, said the same areas that created problems last year present opportunities this year. SkyWest can build customer loyalty through improved customer service, baggage handling and completed flights.The Skico once again will strongly promote the convenient location of the airport from the lodges and slopes in its marketing material. An insert running in the November editions of Outside and Ski magazines will highlight the flying options. The Skico also is launching a new website this month, flyaspensnowmass.com, exclusively to promote airline service to Aspen.While most of the Skico’s material will emphasize the positive, a letter to past year’s customers will also subtlely acknowledge last winter’s difficulties.”We don’t want to pretend the airline issues didn’t happen last winter,” Mackowski said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.