Jet service flying out of Aspen
October 25, 2005
United Express Flight 5650, departing Aspen at 8:40 a.m. Monday, April 17, is the last one.Jet service to Aspen with the BAe-146, long the workhorse among jet aircraft capable of serving the high-elevation airport, will cease to provide the United Express link between Aspen and Denver after Flight 5650 takes off.What will replace it has yet to be determined, but for at least April and May, Aspen will be without jet service. Only the Dash-8 turboprop is scheduled to be in use.There’s a lot of work going on “behind the scenes” to arrange new jet service into Aspen, according to Bill Tomcich, president of the reservation agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airlines. “Hopefully, we’re going to have some exciting news to announce in the next few months,” he told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors Tuesday.Continued jet service into the resort is critical, Tomcich said.”There are a lot of people who prefer not to fly in turboprop aircraft, including a large percentage of our guests,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of feedback since the Dash-8 started flying into our market two years ago.”Though coming changes to Aspen’s airline service have been in the news for much of the year, as two of its major carriers struggle through bankruptcy reorganization, the news that Aspen will be without any jet service come April is still taking some by surprise.”I didn’t realize there was going to be no jet service after April 17,” said Laura Thielen, Aspen Filmfest executive director and ACRA board member. Other nonprofits that have big events scheduled in Aspen next summer are alarmed, she said.Plenty of parties with a stake in future air service in Aspen are studying alternatives, Tomcich said. The search for a jet to replace the BAe-146 involves various potential carriers and aircraft.”What I do know is, they won’t be the Dash-8s. It’ll be a new aircraft and a new operator,” Tomcich said. “I am quite certain you won’t see that [the Dash-8] evolve as the primary aircraft for our market.”United Airlines, which provides the bulk of the air service in and out of Aspen, contracts with Air Wisconsin to operate the Denver-Aspen link – flying as United Express – as well as other routes. After filing for bankruptcy, United put its Air Wisconsin service up for bid last spring. The two airlines reached an agreement, however, to extend Air Wisconsin service to Aspen for another year, since Air Wisconsin has the BAe-146 fleet capable of flying in and out of the local airport. That arrangement expires next April.”The lingering piece is how they [United] are going to service Aspen. It’s that piece that a lot of people have been putting a lot of work into,” Tomcich said.Future of jet serviceIn a presentation to Pitkin County commissioners last summer, Tomcich and Jim Elwood, director of aviation at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, rattled off several aircraft models that could represent the future of local jet service.Embraer and Bombardier both manufacture possible contenders that have received scrutiny, Elwood said. The first jet in Embraer’s 190 series, which could also serve Aspen, has been delivered to East Coast-based JetBlue Airways, he said.”There’s a lot of feeling in the aircraft community that we’re going to see a lot of airplanes in the 70- to 100-seat range in the next few years,” Elwood said.If a jet works in Aspen’s airport, that doesn’t guarantee an airline will latch onto it, though, he cautioned.”A manufacturer may say yes, an aircraft is capable of flying in, but a carrier may take a look at it and say, we’re not comfortable with flying it there,” Elwood said.In the long term, Pitkin County is eyeing an extension of its runway that may accommodate a broader range of regional jets, especially in hot temperatures, when carriers are forced to reduce loads – cut back on passengers, for example – in order to take off.The airport plans to shut down in spring 2007 to repave its existing runway, but the extension work is not currently scheduled. That project is still undergoing environmental review.An already proven jet in the Aspen market – one that could benefit from a longer runway during the summer – is the AVRO RJ-85, which Mesaba Airlines uses to provide service between Aspen and Minneapolis as Northwest Airlink. However, Northwest Airlines has filed for bankruptcy, and Mesaba followed suit, throwing into question the reliability of Northwest Airlink service to Aspen this winter.Under bankruptcy protection, both are able to cancel long-term contracts, Tomcich said.Winter travelers are continuing to book Northwest Airlink flights, however, and Northwest Airlines President and CEO Doug Steenland has pledged, in a letter to customers posted on the airline’s website, to honor all bookings. Northwest has also assured local resort officials that the ski season service will operate as scheduled.At the same time, though, Northwest is looking to reduce the cost of leasing and operating the AVRO RJ-85s Mesaba uses and has threatened to park the planes if it can’t cut expenses. If those jets are made available, it’s possible another carrier could strike a deal to operate them into Aspen.All in all, the relatively stable airline picture that Aspen has enjoyed for some eight years is about to come to an end, Tomcich said.”There are going to be some significant changes,” he said. “Stay tuned for what those changes are going to look like.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgCDOT awards airport $250,000 for safety improvementsPitkin County has been awarded a $250,000 state grant for improvements to the local airport, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.The aviation grant, from the CDOT Division of Aeronautics, is one of 35 grants totaling $2.97 million that are funded from aviation fuel tax revenues.The state money will go toward a local match that will be combined with $9.7 million in federal dollars. The funds are designated for safety improvements at the airport, including an ongoing project to relocate the taxiway farther from the runway, according to Jim Elwood, director of aviation. The federal allocation is 95 percent of the cost.