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Private aviation soars in Aspen

As commercial airlines limp through the pandemic, private traffic dominates 3-to-1 in Aspen

Rick Carroll
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Private jets park at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

Knowing they can work remotely with a world of leisure and recreation outside their backdoor, new homeowners and affluent visitors looking to escape suburban and big-city life not only have ignited the Aspen-area real estate market, but also the business of private aviation.

That has been evident by the swelling sea of private aircraft Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. The pandemic has, in fact, generated such a demand for private flights to Sardy Field— given that more commercial flights were grounded than in the air during the outbreak’s peak — that two Aspen residents recently opened an operation at Rifle Garfield County Airport to accommodate spillover private aircraft (also known as general aviation) from the Aspen and Vail airports.

“With the influx of new part-time and full-time residents, the airports are full and there was no place to hangar more airplanes,” said Robert Holton, who with Jeff Posey opened Rifle Aviation at Rifle Garfield County Airport.



The pandemic last summer touched off a buying frenzy of Aspen area homes resulting in a sellers’ market that saw county the record $3 billion in total property transactions in 2020 (that figure includes agricultural and commercial as well as residential properties). People with the financial means to buy property in Aspen and surrounding areas also have the means to charter a private jet, something not lost on Aspen property broker Brittanie Rockhill. In her April newsletter, Rockhill announced a partnership she had formed with a charter service for guests or homebuyers to use.

“I have so many clients that come here and fly private,” Rockhill said, “and I try to be able to make it as seamless as possible for them.”



BOOMTIME FOR GENERAL AVIATION

General aviation actually saw a boost in the number of Aspen departures and arrivals in January and February over the same month in 2020 and 2019, following a trend going back to May 2020, according to a recent presentation by Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock on key economic indicators from the pandemic.

Yet it crippled the commercial airline industry in 2020 — 43 commercial airlines either suspended operations or went out of business, and the overall aviation industry reported a 65.9% drop in demand from 2019, with losses of $118 billion, according to McGill and Partners.

The effects were felt in 2020 at the Aspen airport, which had 4,314 commercial flights amounting to 188,873 passenger enplanements, a 40% decline from the 306,546 people in 2019, according to Pitkin County flight data. The number of arriving passengers plummeted 41.6% from 300,981 deplanements in 2019 to 175,608 in 2020.

For the first quarter of this year, public health restrictions have relaxed because of the widespread availability of vaccinations and a declining case count in the United States.

In turn, commercial airline activity has increased at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where enplanements totaled 32,688 in March — the most since February 2020’s 41,607, according to Pitkin County airport data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The majority of flights to and from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are general aviation — charter jets, business planes, anything noncommercial.

And even as commercial activity is starting to bounce back at the single-runway Sardy Field, general aviation has continued to increase its flight frequency over commercial carriers’ by a roughly three-to-one margin. That ratio is reflected in private flights accounting for 73.2% of the 4,390 flights to and from Sardy Field in January, compared to general aviation having 64.1% of the flight totals in January 2020, according to the FAA.

Private aviation also represented 73.5% of the 3,788 flights in February and 76.6% of the 5,126 in March — compared to 64.2% of the 4,173 flights in February 2020 and 62.4% of the 3,278 flights in March 2020, when the pandemic struck and ski areas closed mid-month.

Companies like Aspen-based evoJet offer direct charter flights to and from such markets as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Another one, AspenJet, flies semi-private charter flights all over the country on its 30-seaters. Aero flew its reconfigured 16-seat regional jet between Aspen and Van Nuys Airport from February through April. Summer flight on Aero, like a one-way set to Aspen from Los Angeles on Aero, if booked Friday for July 5, would have cost $1,600, for example.

Flights on FlyBlade to Aspen from Westchester County, New York, on a 14-seat Gulfstream G400 have been advertised starting at $3,500, for example.

Local airline consultant Bill Tomcich said there is a crossover between affluent commercial and private travelers.

“There’s always a niche between those who fly first-class commercial and those who have the wherewithal to charter their own private jets,” he said.

“Commercial airlines have been a little slow to react to the strengthening demand, and clearly we’re seeing a demand surge, and we’ve seen quite a surge for private air travel,” Tomcich said.

COMMERCIAL COMING BACK

The volume of commercial service into Aspen this summer will be on par if not heavier than pre-pandemic summer seasons, Tomcich said. Last summer’s commercial service into Aspen nose-dived to historic lows.

FAA data shows 212 commercial flights accounted for 6.7% of the 3,182 in June 2020; 397 commercial flights in July 2020 accounted for 8.7% of the flights that month; 484 commercial flights in August 2020 represented 8.6% of all flights that months; and of September 2020’s 4,411 flights, 404 — 9.1% — were commercial.

While property brokers would love to see this summer repeat its performance from 2020, not so for commercial airlines. This summer’s schedule, Tomcich noted, will see more Aspen service from American and United Airlines.

“Come June, we’ll see more than we ever had during the summer between American and United,” he said.

American will begin offering five flight daily flights between Aspen and DFW in early June, two daily from Chicago and Los Angeles, and one daily from Phoenix, plus a new Saturday flight from Austin, Texas. United will have Denver service seven times a day along with two daily flights from Los Angeles and Houston, and one daily from Chicago and San Francisco.

Commercial airfares for domestic round-trips averaged $292 in 2020, the lowest inflation-adjusted rate since the Bureau of Transportation began collecting such data in 1995.

As well, 2020 saw 131 million passengers originate their travel on U.S. airlines, down from 331 million in 2019 Commercial carriers are returning to pre-pandemic levels and prices are as well. April airfares beat March airfares by 13.1%, Travel Weekly reported May 13, citing Consumer Price Index data

Commercial airline service traditionally has outweighed private aviation in terms of economic impact locally. The 2020 Colorado Aviation Economic Impact Study, which measured the economic impacts of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport using 2018 data, noted the facility had an economic impact on 7,886 jobs, $363.6 million in payroll and nearly $1 billion in business revenue. That data is based on both on- and off-airport spending and jobs, and combines commercial with general.

The most recent report available comparing general and commercial aviation, in terms of economic impact, was based on 2013 data and the differences between the two were vast. Commercial visitors had an economic impact on 4,682 jobs, while general aviation’s was 697 jobs. The overall impact of commercial aviation was $572.1 million in 2013, compared to general aviation’s $83.4 million. The report was done by the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.

Regardless, Tomcich said general aviation’s impact on local business and tourism post-pandemic is growing considerably.

“It’s something to keep a very close eye on,” Tomcich said of general aviation’s impact on Aspen tourism

But, he noted, commercial airlines bring in the high volumes of passengers that resort promoters crave: “My primary role is working with commercial carriers because that deals with a lot more people.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly reported that Delta will have service to Aspen this summer. It will not.

INSIDE THE AIRPORT’S PRIVATE SIDE


As the sole fixed-base operator at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Atlantic Aviation has been on the frontlines to see firsthand the rise in demand for private flights.

“I can generally say that general aviation has bounced back nicely,” said Sue Sommers, senior vice president of sales and marketing of the Plano,Texas-based FBO company, noting some would-be first-class travelers who have switched to private flights since the pandemic broke.

Citing Atlantic Aviation;s status as part of a publicly traded company (Macquarie Infrastructure Corp., NYSE: MIC), Sommers said she and Atlantic officials would not comment in detail on industry performance.

Macquarie’s first-quarter earnings report, announced May 4, said the company, which runs 70 FBOs in the U.S., fared solidly — especially in leisure markets like Aspen.

Christopher Frost, chief executive officer of MIC, wrote in a company statement that demand at resort destinations “exceeded expectations.”

“Flight activity surpassed pre-pandemic levels in regions of the country that have shown consistent strength over the past year,” Frost wrote, “including the Intermountain West and Florida.”

Locally, Atlantic Aviation celebrated last month – on Earth Day – the debut of “sustainable aviation fuel” at the Aspen airport, claiming it will reduce Atlantic’s carbon emissions by 800,000 pounds annually.

“Atlantic Aviation sees the introduction of [sustainable fuel] at Aspen as a major milestone in their ongoing work to further the environmental and community values highlighted during the vision process,” the company said in a press release referencing the airport’s vision process that has included focus groups among stakeholders and organizations addressing ways to modernize the airport.

“That is the next step we have to take in aviation,” said Jonathan Jones, who is the general manager of Atlantic Aviation’s Aspen FBO, noting the company is paying the extra cost of the fuel.

Atlantic Aviation employs about 50 full-time workers, who also receive $500 monthly housing stipends. The FBO will reportedly change ownership by the end of this year, according to published reports.

Atlantic Aviation’s lease will be up for renewal in 2022, a matter that already has come before Pitkin County commissioners in executive session.

It pays $211,829 in annual rent as well as an additional guaranteed maximum of $120,000 annually, according airport officials.


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