SkyWest hopes to recruit new air carriers to Aspen | AspenTimes.com

SkyWest hopes to recruit new air carriers to Aspen

Chip Childs

ASPEN – While Frontier Airlines contemplates if it will continue serving Aspen after this ski season, SkyWest Airlines is aggressively trying to add service from major markets, the company’s president said Tuesday.

SkyWest President and Chief Operating Officer Chip Childs’ presentation to the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors indicated that Aspen flyers can look forward to expanded service and possibly ongoing competition between carriers even if Frontier flies the coop at the end of the season.

SkyWest operates the United Airlines service between Aspen and Denver, as well as the direct flights from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston. Last year it handled 260,000 passenger boardings in Aspen. Childs said his staff is constantly trying to recruit new partners for its regional service, and Aspen flights regularly come up as part of the discussion.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I always dangle Aspen in front of them and say ‘OK, you know that Phoenix-Aspen thing in the CRJ-700, that would be great if you pursued that,'” Childs said.

SkyWest replaced Air Wisconsin as the operator of the United service to Aspen in 2006. SkyWest also operated Delta service to Aspen from Salt Lake City for a while, setting a precedent for operating the service of two competing airlines.

Childs gave no indication there would be any contractual difficulties serving both United and other carriers into Aspen. SkyWest operates about 300 aircraft and, with its sister carrier, ASA, is the third largest regional carrier in the world. They handled 21 million passengers in 2009, “and we’re on track to carry a lot more than that in 2010,” Childs said.

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Aspen’s an important part of its plan, even if it is a relatively small part of the pie.

“We have tremendous success here. United makes good money here. We do well with United here,” Childs said. “We want to expand it with more carriers.”

“Our objective is to fly more into Aspen, from longer distances,” Childs later added.

The regional carrier has three distinct advantages over competition after operating in Aspen for four years, he said. It has a large pool of pilots qualified to fly into Aspen’s tricky mountainous terrain. It has the perfect aircraft for serving the market in the CRJ-700 – a jet that can fly direct from long distances and that is also well-suited for mountain operations.

“There are a lot of holes this aircraft can fill,” Childs said.

SkyWest has also developed an experienced staff and effective system in Aspen, he said. It’s developed a good economies of scale in Aspen that would benefit by an increase in service. “We’re eager and hungry to continue to get better at it,” Childs said.

Aspen has enjoyed a competitive edge over other destination resorts because it has a large number of available seats coming into an airport that has a closer proximity than most towns enjoy. Tourism officials don’t want to lose the edge in seats.

Aspen passengers have benefited over the years whenever there has been a high level of competition, first between Continental and United in the 1980s and into the 1990s, and now between Frontier and United for the last two winters. The competition drives down airfares.

Frontier started Aspen service with a turbo-prop aircraft on its Lynx subsidiary in 2008, but now that service is in jeopardy. Republic Airlines purchased Frontier last year and planned to phase out Aspen service last September. Officials reconsidered and committed to serve the Aspen market until April 17.

Republic doesn’t want to operate the turbo-prop aircraft as part of its fleet because they are limited to so few markets, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and a liaison to the airline industry. Republic is seeking alternative aircraft that it could use to continue serving Aspen, he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com