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Fewer fliers despite more seats in Aspen

Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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ASPEN – The number of passengers boarding on all airlines at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport was down about 6 percent for December through February, according to statistics released this week by the airport manager’s office.

The number of passenger boardings, known as “enplanements” in industry jargon, fell from 72,817 for those three months last season to 68,612 this season. That is a difference of 4,205.

February was particularly tough as the number of passengers was down 10.3 percent, the manager’s report showed. January was down 5.4 percent after enplanements were up slightly in December.

The activity at the airport is being affected by the international recession, said Pitkin County Director of Aviation Jim Elwood. The airline industry has been hit hard by a decline in the amount of travel. Some airports are experiencing a much greater decline than Aspen in passenger numbers, he said.

“We’re probably on the little-bit-better-than-average side,” Elwood said.

Aspen Skiing Co. Senior Vice President David Perry said the Aspen airport figures parallel the company’s business this winter. Skico’s skier visits were down 8.1 percent season-to-date through February compared to last season, he said.

Although the recession is forcing businesses of all types to adjust their outlooks, the passenger numbers are disappointing for the Aspen-Snowmass tourism industry because expectations were so high going into ski season.

Additional service from United and new service from Frontier increased the number of seats in the Aspen market by about 14 percent this winter. The airlines are offering about 200,000 seats on flights from December through the end of ski season in April ” the most since the 1997-98 ski season.

Tourism officials thought that would provide Aspen-Snowmass with a big advantage over competing resorts. The recession ruined chances to take full advantage of that increased capacity.

Elwood said there are still bright spots in service. United’s nonstop flights from Chicago and Delta’s daily flight from Atlanta have been particularly strong, he said.

Perry said there are benefits from the extra airline service, even if it hasn’t translated into a greater number of tourists flying to Aspen. Extra capacity means lower prices, he noted. Travelers taking vacations to Aspen and locals flying out have enjoyed some of the lowest fares in years this winter.

Perry and Elwood said it is also possible that the extra capacity ” and added convenience for travelers through additional flights ” prevented Aspen’s business from sagging even more than it has this winter.

One local traveler lamented this week after flying back to Aspen on a flight with only about 10 passengers that it seems unlikely that the current level of service ” and the low air fares ” can be maintained.

Elwood said that “it is too early to tell” if the airlines’ performance in Aspen this winter will affect their future levels of service. The airline industry as a whole is facing a tough time. Aspen service has traditionally been profitable, so the airlines might still view the market as an opportunity, he said.

Officials from SkyWest, which operates the United and Delta service to Aspen, weren’t immediately available for comment.

United has the largest market share in Aspen. Its passenger numbers fell by 5 percent in December, 4 percent in January and 10.5 percent in February.

Frontier started serving Aspen last April, so year-to-year comparisons aren’t possible yet. The carrier’s best months so far were July and August, when it logged more than 6,000 passenger boardings each of those months. Its number of passenger boardings were 3,296 in January and 3,322 in February.

Frontier spokesman Steve Snyder said, “We are pleased with the performance of our service in the Aspen market so far. In fact, we are planning to add a fifth round-trip effective June 14 in order to service summer season demand.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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