Expanded jet service for Sardy? | AspenTimes.com

Expanded jet service for Sardy?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Had Aspenites approved a controversial proposal to expand the resort’s airport runway in 1995, its air service picture might not look a whole lot different today.

That, at least, is the opinion of the man who has probably spent more time compiling information on aircraft capability, airline hubs and flight connections with an eye toward expanded service into Sardy Field than anyone else.

Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen/Snowmass and the resort’s liaison with the airlines, brought his power-point presentation on Aspen air service to the City Council on Tuesday.

Tomcich is looking to the future, but he offers one telling bit of hindsight: Had voters endorsed the expansion of the Sardy runway to accommodate the Boeing 737 (they didn’t), only a connection to Houston would make sense today.

“If we could have flown the 737, we’d be looking at Continental from Houston and that’s it,” he said. “It’s not what I see as our biggest opportunity today.”

Instead, Aspen needs to concentrate on attracting new regional jet service, according to Tomcich. He looks for aircraft that can make a direct flight between Aspen and another airport that serves as the connecting point for enough travelers to make the Aspen link viable.

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The catch, of course, is not just any airplane can fly directly into Aspen, especially from a long distance.

And the two jets that do it best, the Avro RJ and BAe 146, produced by British Aerospace Systems, are out of production.

Pitkin County is in the midst of drafting a new airport master plan that could include various changes to accommodate a wider variety of both jet and turboprop aircraft.

Already, it’s clear that if Aspen’s 7,000-foot runway was 1,000 feet longer, it could better accommodate the two jets that fly here now, Tomcich said. Northwest Airlink ended its summer service between Minneapolis and Aspen because the Avro RJ could only take off in the cool temperatures of the early morning, which made the service unviable.

Some expansion of the airport runway offers no guarantees, Tomcich added, but the potential to accommodate other aircraft will be scrutinized carefully, he predicted.

“It’s not, build it and they will come,” he said.

“My recommendation is, we look at anything that might open the door to other aircraft,” Tomcich said. “There are a lot of other airlines that would love to fly in here if they could.”

It’s not a matter of offering subsidies to lure carriers here, it’s a matter of airport capabilities and airplane capabilities, he stressed.

Currently, about 170,000 seats fly into Aspen during the winter season. Tomcich believes upping that total to about 200,000 to 220,000 would give the resort an ideal level of service, in conjunction with service into Eagle County Airport.

At its peak, Sardy Field had 300,000 airline seats coming into the resort during the 1993-94 ski season. Then, Continental Airlines pulled its hub out of Denver and United remained the sole major carrier serving Aspen.

The resort has seen service from other carriers come and go since then, including flights by a couple of start-up airlines that eventually folded.

Incidentally, that inability to accommodate the 737 at Sardy Field may be the one thing that has kept Continental from coming back into the Aspen market.

“Continental now flies to every single ski destination they used to serve, from their Houston hub, except Aspen,” Tomcich said.

Continental doesn’t have an airplane that can fly here, he said.

But someday, it might. New aircraft in various stages of production may prove up to the challenge, Tomcich said.

“I’m somewhat optimistic about the future of our air service despite the fact that the 146 is no longer being produced,” he said.

But if the resort does nothing to accommodate its successor, 20 years from now Aspen could be in “a world of hurt,” Tomcich said.

What comes after the BAe 146 is but one change looming in the airline industry, according to Tomcich. None of the major carriers are making money in the wake of Sept. 11, and three of the seven big airlines could be filing for bankruptcy if things don’t turn around, he warned.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but things are going to change,” Tomcich said. “If we’re not the slightest bit adaptable to change, we could be left behind.”

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]