United still evaluating extra service for Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – United Express might not be finished adding flights to Aspen, a senior vice president with the airline suggested Thursday.

Tom O’Toole, chief marketing officer for United Airlines, assured more than 200 members of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association at an annual luncheon that the carrier has a “strong commitment” to Aspen despite turbulence in the airline industry.

“I’m here to tell you, Aspen matters to United Airlines and will continue to do so,” O’Toole said.

He noted that other airlines appear to have an “ambivalent” approach to serving Aspen. It was a thinly veiled reference to Frontier Airlines, which planned to drop service to Aspen at the end of this month, then abruptly changed course and renewed plans to serve Aspen through the ski season. The longer-term intentions of Frontier’s parent company, Republic Airways, are unknown.

Given that scenario, it is easy to understand why the Aspen business community is concerned about the future of its air service, O’Toole said.

“Anybody can talk, but I think that adding more service [and] more places is tangible, practical evidence of [the] commitment of United Airlines to Aspen,” he said.

United Express added direct service to Aspen from Chicago and San Francisco for the heart of the 2010-11 winter. It boosted the number of flights from San Francisco from one to two; and from Chicago from three to four. It will also operate three flights from Los Angeles and 12 between Aspen and Denver.

While no promises were made by O’Toole, he said Aspen could benefit from additional service.

“Going forward, I can say that we are continuing to actively evaluate, not just talk about, adding other service to your community from other major markets,” O’Toole said.

Even if no direct service is added, Aspen will benefit if the federal government approves the proposed merger of United and Continental. The merger is relevant to Aspen because Continental is strong in areas where United currently is not – such as Latin America, O’Toole said.

The comments came at ACRA’s annual membership luncheon at the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain. The gathering featured speakers from the chamber and Aspen Skiing Co., as well as United.

“I love getting good news, don’t you,” Skico Senior Vice President David Perry asked the crowd after O’Toole’s address.

All speakers concentrated on the necessity of working together to overcome the tough economic times. Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said the last two seasons have proven that marketing really does work. The 2008-09 winter, in the middle of the fiscal crisis, could have been worse without the collective marketing between the Skico, chamber and other partners. Last winter, Aspen saw a modest gain in business.

Customers are seeking value, and the Skico is offering it by renewing lift ticket and lodging packages that proved popular last year. Kaplan said a theme of the marketing campaign is that customers who buy early get more for their money.

The ongoing “economic malaise” cannot be ignored, Kaplan said, but Aspen also can’t be paralyzed by tough times.

“You’ve got to focus on what matters and what you can control,” he said.

Skiers and riders can rejoice in the fact that the ski season is one of the longest ever at 151 days, Kaplan noted.

Warren Klug, a member of the chamber’s board of directors, said the last two winters have clearly taken a toll on mountain resorts, Aspen included. Everyone has friends or family that have been laid off, and know business owners that had to close, Klug said.

The recession and slow recovery reinforce the need for Aspen to spend more on marketing, Klug claimed. He made a pitch for the 1 percent lodging tax that will go before Aspen voters in November. It could raise an estimated $1 million more in marketing funds, without a downside, he said.

“We’re not chasing anybody away by increasing our lodging tax by 1 percentage point,” Klug said.


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