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Passenger traffic spikes at Aspen airport

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times
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ASPEN – Commercial passenger traffic was up nearly 11 percent at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport for the first quarter of 2012, thanks in part to the addition of a third airline. On Monday, though, the airport drops back to service from just one carrier.

With Monday’s 7 a.m. departure of the Frontier Airlines flight to Denver, Frontier ceases the service to Aspen it launched in 2008, when it ended what had become a United Express monopoly. The addition of Frontier brought fares down noticeably at the time.

United continues to serve the local market year-round, joined by seasonal newcomer American Eagle, which launched service for the winter in December; it ended April 8. American will begin summer service June 15, but for the spring offseason, United Express, operated by Skywest, is the sole option for commercial flights into and out of the resort.



With three airlines operating for the first three months of the year, though, 101,593 people boarded commercial flights in Aspen, up 10.9 percent from the same period in 2011, according to airport data. The total reflects 7,092 enplanements (people getting on a plane) on American Eagle, which offered one daily flight between Aspen and both Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles.

The numbers confirm what American Airlines executive Gary Foss predicted in July, when American’s entry into the market was announced.



“Effective in December, you’re going to see traffic increase dramatically,” Foss told a crowd assembled at the airport to hear the news.

March was the single busiest month for commercial passenger traffic in Aspen last year, with 32,424 enplanements. This year, the airport saw 35,154 enplanements in March, an 8.4 percent jump, but February enplanements increased even more substantially – 16.6 percent.

Enplanements on United were up for each of the three months, including a 7.5 percent gain in February. The airline remains the dominant carrier in the Aspen market, and its jump in passenger counts during the first quarter can be attributed, in part, to additional service. United added a fourth daily connection to L.A. and a second daily Houston connection for the winter season, noted Bill Tomcich, president of reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.

Frontier, flying four flights daily between Denver and Aspen for the winter season, saw a nearly 8 percent drop in passengers boarding in Aspen in January and a 17 percent decline in March, but its numbers were up 12.6 percent in February.

The February jump likely reflects a perfect record of completed flights for Frontier, according to Tomcich. No flights were canceled by the airline during the month.

“For them to have a perfect record with four flights daily – that’s impressive,” he said.

Frontier’s entry into the Aspen market came with its launch of a Denver-based regional service it called Lynx, which relied on the Q400 turboprop to serve ski towns and other communities in western Colorado, as well as out-of-state destinations. It subsequently pulled its Lynx service out of many of the start-up markets, but Aspen remained a profitable stop. In the end, it was the fate of the Q400 that led to the airline’s departure.

Frontier was taken over by Republic Airlines in 2009, and Republic announced in 2010 that it would phase out the turboprops and end service to Aspen that fall. A lease arrangement for the planes fell through, though, and Frontier service continued. Now, the handful of remaining Q400s in the fleet are being grounded. Frontier has no other aircraft approved to fly into and out of Aspen’s mountainous terrain.

Both United and American use the CRJ-700 jet for their Aspen service. American credited last year’s extension of the local airport runway by 1,000 feet with making its service feasible. Without the added length, too many seats had to be left empty to take off with enough fuel for flights to Los Angeles and Dallas, American officials said.

Without competing airline service for the offseason, observers have predicted airfares into and out of Aspen will once again reflect a monopoly. On Friday, Frontier listed a seat on its final flight out on Monday for $171.80. United’s cheapest seat to Denver on Monday was listed at $474.

Airport and resort officials frequently confirm they continue to talk with airlines about expanded or new service into and out of Aspen, though they decline to discuss specifics.

And Tomcich, often the point person for those discussions, said he won’t discount the potential for Frontier’s return.

“We’re sad to see them go,” he said, “but just because they’re leaving Aspen doesn’t mean forever.”

janet@aspentimes.com


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