Few arrive as Aspen air service cuts expected
The two commercial flights that came and went from Aspen’s airport during the day Friday carried a total of about 35 passengers.
“Today’s a big day,” said Greg Boyd, the airport’s facilities manager. “Atlantic Aviation (also) has more aircraft on the ground than we’ve seen (in recent weeks).”
Even in a normal spring offseason, it’s not this slow.
“People will jump on a plane to Denver to get their teeth cleaned by their favorite dentist (in normal times),” Boyd said.
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But no more. In fact, air service levels likely will not return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon, Aspen’s airport director said.
“There’s no city that’s not immune to significant air service cutbacks now, including Aspen,” said John Kinney, who has been running the airport since December 2014.
The coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain and control it have led local public health authorities to shut down lodging and ask visitors and second homeowners to leave and stay away to preserve the limited health care system for permanent residents.
Visitors who choose to come to Aspen must quarantine themselves for 14 days, according to public health officials. That rule is displayed on electronic message boards posted along Highway 82 heading in to Aspen from the airport.
United and Delta airlines are the only two commercial operators flying in to Aspen now, with a total of three flights per day, Kinney said. American Airlines has canceled flights in recent weeks, though they may be returning soon.
Some days, one flight per day has landed, other days all three arrive, Kinney said. The facility has been averaging between 15 and 20 passengers a day, though as few as five have come through on particularly quiet days, Kinney and Boyd said.
On Friday, a Delta flight from Salt Lake arrived about 12:15 p.m., while a United flight from Denver touched down about 15 minutes later. There appeared to be between five and six people on each flight, most of whom were wearing masks.
A second, mid-afternoon United flight from Denver was canceled, though an evening Denver flight was still scheduled to arrive on time just after 9 p.m. as of Friday afternoon.
The airport doesn’t screen departing passengers for COVID-19 and relies on screenings at larger airports that passengers pass through prior to arrival in Aspen for those who come here, Kinney said. Airline employees watch for symptoms and can have ground authorities meet a symptomatic passenger, he said.
Public health officials said Thursday they were aware of the situation at the airport and felt it was adequate.
WHO’S COMING AND GOING?
Aspen resident Samuel Rittgers flew in Friday from Florida, via Salt Lake City, and said he was glad to be returning home after spending six weeks waiting “until the dust settled.”
“There was this virus going around and I wanted to get out of here,” Rittgers said, when asked why he left March 16. “Now, it looks like it’s getting back to normal.”
He said he had not heard anything “official” about the quarantine situation in Pitkin County, but planned to lie low and not hang around a lot of people. Still, he said he just spent a month-and-a-half in quarantine in Florida and had no plans to repeat the experience in Aspen.
“Frankly, I’m sick of the fear,” Rittgers said.
Sierra Cox arrived in Aspen from Redmond, Oregon, to visit her boyfriend of two years, who lives in town. She said it was her first visit to Aspen and admitted it was an unusual time to come.
Cox said she knew about and planned to observe the 14-day quarantine even though it will take up her entire two-week visit.
“It’s crazy, but I’m excited,” she said.
Leo, who flew in from Denver and declined to give his last name, said he’d come to Aspen for two days for business. He also did not want to reveal his line of work.
Educational matters brought a few residents back to town.
Aspen High School graduate Gage Carr was returning to his family from school at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. He said he was glad to be home after spending much of the past six weeks attending online classes.
“I’ve literally been sitting in my apartment,” he said.
Greg Peterson and his son, Zachary, came home to Aspen from Orlando after a two-day trip spent checking on the situation with Zachary’s university next semester.
“That’s a good question,” Greg Peterson said when asked what he learned.
Mike Weddell, on the other hand, was waiting to leave Aspen to pick up his wife in Tallahassee, Florida, and drive back to Aspen. He said he was a little worried about the impending road trip.
“It’s three days of driving and we have to get hotel rooms,” Weddell said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen there.”
INDUSTRY IN TURMOIL
Kinney, the airport director, said the new normal once flights pick up again will dictate that they have between 70% and 80% of the number of passengers they did pre-COVID-19.
And while that might sound like a lot, if Aspen flights are only down 30% in the post-COVID airline era, “we will get off easy,” he said.
That’s because the industry is in massive turmoil, and airlines, which are losing millions per day, are rethinking levels of service at every airport in America, Kinney said.
Thousands of unused aircraft are parked idle in the desert, with some likely to be retired permanently. Traditional plum routes for airlines, like Hawaii, are even on the chopping block, he said.
“I wouldn’t even have imagined that (Hawaii cutbacks) before,” Kinney said. “There are no sacred cows at this time and place.”
Restaurants and bars in Aspen and Pitkin County are not expected to open until mid-June at the earliest, while officials have said hotels and other lodging might not open until August or September.
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