New airline looks to serve Western Slope | AspenTimes.com

New airline looks to serve Western Slope

Tim Mutrie

The head of the former Aspen Airways hopes to have a new airline serving Aspen and the Western Slope flying by Christmas.

The start-up carrier, Bonanza Airlines, will probably be based in Aspen, according to President and CEO Duggan Brown, who once ran the now-defunct Aspen Airways.

“The Western Slope needs an airline that serves the Western Slope – United does not serve the Western Slope,” Brown said Sunday from his home in Mancos. “United Airlines is raping the Western Slope.”

Service to communities such as Grand Junction, Durango, Aspen, Telluride and Montrose is very likely, said Brown, who added that it’s too early to address exact routes and start-up dates.

“The Western Slope is all we’re specializing in,” he said. “Right now, we’re finalizing all the policies and routes for the airline.”

Bonanza’s seven-member board of directors will meet with the press and public on Saturday, Sept. 18 at Sardy Field. Details about the operation will be disclosed and the plane Bonanza plans to use – a 50-seat Convair jet prop – will be available for viewing.

“We won’t be known as a low-cost airline, but we will have fair fares,” Brown said. “We’ll be taking off as soon as we can, but it’s a long process. There’s an old saying: When the weight of the paper equals the weight of the airplane, then you’re ready to fly. It’s a tremendously complicated process.”

In recent history, Aspen has witnessed the short-lived rise and fall of several start-up airlines, most recently Aspen Mountain Air, which terminated Aspen service last October before going bankrupt altogether. Mountain Air Express folded in 1997, and several airlines over the years have announced intentions of launching service in Aspen, though plans never materialized.

In fact, in the spring of 1996, Brown and several Aspen-area backers announced plans to launch Bonanza Airlines, but the venture never took off.

“Everybody in the world was starting an airline in ’96, so we just withdrew,” Brown said. “Then recently, I was asked to restart it by a bunch of people, so I brought it back to life.”

According to Bill Tomcich, president of Aspen Central Reservations and director of travel services for the Aspen Skiing Co., four different start-up airlines have proposed launching service in Aspen since January. SkyTeam Airlines is one – though reportedly the airline does not intend to begin service to Aspen until the winter of 2000-2001 – and Bonanza is another, he said.

“The two others I can’t really speak to, but I don’t give them a lot of credibility or hope at this point,” Tomcich said.

And with Christmas just over three months away, a seemingly short period of time in which to successfully launch an airline, Tomcich said Bonanza’s aim to fly by then is lofty, but not impossible. In 1997, an airline was able to get up and running for the ski season in about four months’ time, he said.

“At this point, I really don’t know enough to accurately say whether or not they’re going to be able to do it,” Tomcich said, “but I will say it looks like they’ve got some good people behind them, and it is promising.”

Tomcich said marketing and code sharing – in which Bonanza would partner with other airlines to book its seats – are two keys to the airline’s success.

Brown, a former Aspen resident of 26 years who has been in the airline business his entire life, said he plans to return to the area in order to manage Bonanza. In 1960, Brown started Aspen Airways for The Aspen Institute, he said, though about a decade later the institute sold the operation.

“Aspen Airways was a successful airline, until it sold and they got rid of the 580 [planes]. Then they went broke,” Brown said, referring to the Convair aircraft, also known as the “Mountain Master” VC 580 A.

“They’re not called the Mountain Master for nothing,” Brown continued. “That’s been one of the problems with the airlines that have started on the Western Slope – not having the right aircraft. The 580 is designed for high altitudes and hot temperatures. It’s the best mountain airplane that’s ever been built, no doubt about it.”

In order to properly serve the Western Slope, Bonanza would require a minimum of 10 of the planes, Brown said, “but we won’t start with that many.”

Even without Bonanza, Aspen will see slightly more commercial seats available this winter over last winter, according to Tomcich. Currently serving Aspen are United Express, America West Express and Northwest Airlink.

“Any additional service secured between now and ski season will certainly help, because based on the load factors coming into Aspen last winter, we were short on seats,” he said. “It would basically be a bonus for us.”

And if Bonanza is successful in launching service to Aspen, expect local fares to decrease across the board, Tomcich said.

“Any time a new carrier comes into the market, it will have an impact on ticket prices,” he said.


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