Changes at Aspen airport could translate to higher fares at Eagle

Lauren Glendenning
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyAlexis Randock, left, and Jake Lebowitz board a United Express flight to Denver on Friday at the Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – A 2008 report on Colorado airports’ economic impacts said that the hum of airplane engines is the sound of commerce.

The state’s 14 commercial and 60 general aviation airports generate billions for local economies and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, according to the 2008 Colorado Aviation Economic Impact Study.

That’s why news that two of the three airlines serving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport won’t be flying there this winter isn’t good news, not even for Aspen competitors like the Eagle County Regional Airport.

The Aspen airport, with the loss of service from Frontier and Delta, will bring in about 140,000 seats this winter – 56,000 less seats that it brought in last winter.

“It could mean an increase in passengers (at the Eagle County Airport) potentially because of the route losses,” said Chris Anderson, terminal manager at the Eagle County airport. “Some of the Aspen visitors may opt to use Eagle, but Aspen still has a very strong flight program this year and I think they’re going to do well.”

While some might see more passengers into Eagle as a good thing for the local economy, there are also potentially negative factors to consider.

Kent Myers, president of Airplanners LLC and EGE Air Alliance, a nonprofit established to grow air service to Eagle County airport, believes Aspen’s brand is very strong and also very different from that of Vail or Beaver Creek, and that skiers aren’t necessarily going to quit going to Aspen because it’s less convenient to get there.

“In the big scheme of things, the downside to it may be enough people wanting to fly into the Eagle airport that they could take seats away from a Vail customer,” Myers said. “Less air service is not good for any market.”

The loss of air service is a reminder to people like Myers and Anderson that flight service is a privilege and a luxury.

“The airline industry is a volatile industry,” Anderson said. “We’ve seen flights come and go in Eagle recently, but we always rebound. Just like Eagle, Aspen has a very attractive market for the airlines.”

Anderson said the Aspen market will likely attract more flight service again in the future, so he thinks the one-airline situation there – United is now the only commercial carrier serving Aspen – won’t last long.

The upcoming winter will be a challenge, though.

“It’s unfortunate for the Aspen community and the Aspen airport,” Anderson said. “It’s a very big loss for that community.”

Some traffic to Aspen will definitely stay in Aspen, Myers said. Aspen second-home owners aren’t going to start coming to Vail, for example.

Vail Town Councilman Kevin Foley thinks the increase in traffic at the Eagle airport could potentially lead to more business upvalley.

“It may translate to some more guests for us which would be great,” Foley said. “It may help us – the more the merrier.”

Seventeen to 20 percent of the Eagle County Airport’s business goes to the Roaring Fork Valley and Aspen anyway, Myers said. The lack of air service to Aspen means more pressure on the demand for the Eagle airport, he said.

“There are not enough seats in the marketplace,” Myers said. “It will create some challenges for us.”

The two biggest challenges right away will be fare prices – Myers suspects airfares in and out of Eagle could go up – and less supply with the same demand.

“I don’t think this is necessarily a big gain for the Vail Valley,” Myers said.

Vail Resorts has been paying close attention to what is happening in the Aspen market. Vail Mountain Marketing Director Adam Sutner issued the following statement Friday about news of the loss in Aspen’s air service.

“While we of course have studied this closely, we are respectful of Aspen and empathize with this loss of air service,” Sutner wrote. “Our overall strategic approach for Eagle airport marketing is to offer our guests affordably priced accessibility to an incredible experience of skiing Vail, accompanied by superior value offers for lodging, ski school, our compelling calendar of events such as Snow Daze and Spring Back to Vail, all underscored by industry-leading guest service. Whatever Aspen’s air capacity for next year, our message stands on its own and we feel it is as compelling as ever. It is worthwhile mentioning that we are very happy with the results of our own air program into (the Eagle County airport) and will stay focused on optimizing its performance for this coming season and beyond.”

Vail Resorts has shown its loyalty to Eagle air service – Anderson said Vail Resorts has taken on all of the financial liability and coordination for the winter air program.

Vail Resorts picks up 100 percent of the marketing bill for the airport in the winter, and subsidizes the winter air program with up to $2 million each year, Myers said in a presentation to the Vail Town Council earlier this year.

Vail Resorts has had losses of up to $2.5 million through the winter air program, Myers said in the presentation.

Without Vail Resorts’ help, Anderson said the Eagle County Airport wouldn’t have the service it has – summer service is also subsidized, by the EGE Air Alliance, which is made up of local businesses and governments.

“If you look at the year-round program, it’s wholly supported by the community,” Anderson said. “We’re fortunate to have everybody on our side.”