Business Monday: Airlines lay low but still flying in and out of Aspen |

Business Monday: Airlines lay low but still flying in and out of Aspen

Ruth and Mel Ronick were surrounded by empty seats on their United flight from Aspen to San Francisco on March 20.
Courtesy photo

Signs of a crippled airline industry are evident locally at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where commercial service has been reduced to a handful of daily flights with some passenger counts lower than crew sizes.

A $2 trillion economic relief package signed by President Donald Trump on Friday will bring some relief to commercial airlines, though $25 billion in grants derived from the $60 billion industry bailout requires participating carriers to keep paying their employees through the end of September. Furloughs and layoffs are not allowed under the bailout, the remaining $35 million of which will come through loans contingent on the airlines maintaining service levels to their markets.

The three commercial airlines serving Aspen have slashed local service.

American’s last flight to Dallas/Fort Worth was March 21, while that service is scheduled to return June 4, according to local travel consultant Bill Tomcich, Aspen’s liaison to the airline industry.

Delta has suspended flights to and from Atlanta, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, while the airline continues two scheduled flights daily to and from Salt Lake City. That will likely be reduced to one daily flight starting April 1, according to Tomcich.

United plans to be down to three scheduled flights daily between Aspen and Denver from April 1 to 13, though that schedule is subject to change.

For those few and far between passengers, the flights can be quiet and hassle-free.

Aspen resident Mel Ronick reported that he and his wife “were treated to a completely private nonstop flight from Aspen to San Francisco” on March 20.

“Yes, we were the only passengers on the flight,” he said. “Though it was nice, we did feel badly for United.”

For sure, it is an unprecedented challenge for the airline industry including 9/11, airline executives and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have said.

“9/11 was an extreme shock to the industry, but everything that I’ve been reading is this is way worse than 9/11 in terms of financial impact on the airlines and the industry,” Tomcich said.

Aspen tourism season was rolling through February when as many as 30 flights were offered daily, Tomcich said.

“We were coming off a very strong winter until the coronavirus broke out earlier this month,” he said. “So that is cause for optimism that the underlining fundamentals of our economy had been strong.”

When the economy rebounds is a matter of speculation, but daunting times await the airline industry if surveys are to be believed.

A recent Harris Poll found that 15% of Americans said they will fly within a month after the government says COVID-19 is waning; another 16% said they would wait to fly within three months; and another 49% said they would likely be ready at six months.

“Based on how doctors expect the virus to spread and how economists expect the global economy to react, we expect demand to remain suppressed for months after that, possibly into next year,” said United CEO Oscar Munoz and the man who will succeed him in May, United President Scott Kirby, in a message to employees last week and picked up my national media outlets. “That means being honest, fair and upfront with you: if the recovery is as slow as we fear, it means our airline and our workforce will have to be smaller than it is today.”

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