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Fewer seats for air travel

Janet Urquhart
Returning from vacation, John Rigney of Aspen, son and aspiring pilot Liam ,4, wife Anna and Matthew, 2, depart a United Express Flight at Sardy Field Monday afternoon May 17, 2004. "We fly in and out twice a year for vacations," says Anna, "John flies out a lot with his job." Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.
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Resort officials are already working to increase the amount of air service into Aspen next winter after watching passenger numbers drop last ski season because the number of airline seats was down.

While virtually every other economic indicator signaled an upturn in business last season, the number of people who flew in and out of Sardy Field deceivingly dropped, compared to the prior winter.

It’s not a trend anyone would like to see continue, said Bill Tomcich, president of the reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison with the airline industry.

Flight schedules that have already been posted by the airlines for next winter indicate Aspen will be no worse off than it was last ski season in terms of available seats, but Tomcich hopes to secure more.

“We are leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to get increased capacity next year, recognizing it’s not a healthy trend if capacity continues to drop,” he said.

Tomcich has been meeting with the airlines that currently serve Aspen and others that don’t.

The number of seats that were sold last season indicate Aspen is a profitable destination to serve, he reasoned.

“We know that our market is more attractive than it’s ever been,” Tomcich said. “Demand is very much here.”

Several factors led to a reduction in the number of available airline seats last winter, most notably a reduction in weekend flights during the peak of the ski season, when demand was greatest, according to Tomcich.

Last winter, the three airlines serving Aspen provided a total of 146,337 seats between Dec. 1 and the end of April. That’s down 22 percent from the 187,538 available seats during the same period in 2002-03.

The number of passengers, though, only dropped 11 percent – from 119,020 in the winter of 2002-03 to 105,603 last winter.

The overall percentage of seats that were filled – what airlines call the “load factor” – was 72.2 percent last ski season – up from 63.5 percent the prior winter.

“That’s a significant improvement,” Tomcich said. “It’s certainly the highest we’ve seen in the last five years.”

They got here somehow

And, it appears more travelers came to Aspen last season, even if they couldn’t get an airline seat or couldn’t bring themselves to pay the higher fares passengers saw on weekend flights. Sales activity and occupancy rates tell a story that contradicts the drop in passenger numbers.

Aspen recorded record retail sales in January and February, along with a strong March. Occupancy rates were also up for December through March, according to Tomcich.

December occupancy was 61 percent, compared to 54 percent in December 2002; January occupancy was 75 percent, compared to 68 percent in January 2003; February was up slightly – 78 percent compared to 77 percent a year ago; and March occupancy hit 79 percent, compared to 72 percent for the month in 2003.

An increase in skier visits to Aspen/Snowmass is also anticipated when the final tally is announced next month; the Aspen Skiing Co. reported skier visits were up 5 percent at the end of February, compared to the winter of 2002-03.

“A lot of people found other ways to get in here,” Tomcich said, whether they took ground transportation from Denver or flew into another area airport. Eagle County Airport was reporting an 8 percent increase in passengers this year at the end of February, and prices to fly into Denver have been at “an all-time low,” Tomcich said.

At least one shuttle service was reporting brisk business last winter.

“Colorado Mountain Express was up a solid double-digit increase into the Aspen market,” said Tom Ball, executive vice president. That increase came from travelers getting to and from Denver and the Eagle County Airport, he said.

Denver was an attractive option, given some of the airline fares Aspen-bound travelers encountered, according to Tomcich.

“We had higher demand for travel on the weekends. Instead of meeting that demand with increased capacity, it was met with higher fares,” he said. “There was a tremendous premium for flying on weekends.”

A fare analysis is currently under way, Tomcich added.

Aspen saw a drop in available seats for several reasons: America West Express flew one flight a day instead of two from Phoenix into Aspen last winter because Mesa Airlines, which flies the route, allocated some of its planes for use elsewhere – including United Express flights to Aspen. In addition, United cut its daily connection with San Francisco, downsized one of its flights from Denver to a smaller aircraft, and didn’t increase flight service on weekends.

Two winters ago, United flew two extra flights on weekends between Aspen and Denver during the peak months of February and March. Last winter, with demands for regional service elsewhere, United wasn’t able to boost its weekend service.

“As much as anything, it was that United was short of planes,” said Jim Elwood, local airport director. “We’re cautiously optimistic that we’ll see a rebound.”

United, having secured agreements with three additional regional carriers, should have more planes at its disposal next winter, Tomcich agreed.

Northwest Airlink, which provides an Aspen-Minneapolis connection, actually upped its service last winter from two daily flights to three in February and March, but that increase wasn’t enough to offset the drop in seats by other carriers.

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


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