Letter: The intermediary is the air service problem

Passengers flying in and out of Aspen over Christmas were subjected to delays and cancellations. Vail Resorts subsidiary Colorado Mountain Express must have earned a nice penny from the distress of those flying commercial to Aspen.

Travelers flying to Eagle County (Vail’s airport) suffered far fewer inconveniences. There are two important reasons: First, the Eagle County airport has a much larger footprint. Thus, private jets are far less likely to cause congestion as they did in Aspen. Second, Aspen is served by a single regional airline, SkyWest, while Vail is served by three trunk carriers: American, Delta, and United.

This last statement may surprise some readers because the spokesman for Stay Aspen tells the public Aspen is served by the same three trunk carriers. He is technically wrong. Each of the trunk carriers hires the same regional airline, SkyWest, to serve Aspen. And each of the trunk carriers almost certainly compensates SkyWest in the same way — by the distance flown. Thus United almost certainly pays SkyWest seven times as much to fly from Denver to Calgary as it pays the regional carrier to fly from Denver to Aspen. As several studies have noted, the trunk carriers compensate the regional carriers by flight segment and the compensation is so generous that starting second offices may earn only $25/hr. Regionals are so squeezed financially that some have been parking planes because they cannot find people willing to accept such low wages and cannot get the airlines to increase payments.

The compensation scheme gives SkyWest every incentive to fly the long flights to cities such as Calgary rather than the short hops to Aspen. I benefited from this incentive more than once when teaching at the University of Calgary. The SkyWest agent would announce that they had an equipment problem and the flight would be delayed half an hour. Then, passengers to Calgary would be redirected to a plane previously scheduled to fly a short hop within Colorado. The passengers to the Colorado destination would be offered ground transportation, SkyWest officials were clearly acting to maximize their profits at the expense of those going to Aspen.

Travelers from more distance cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles or Minneapolis to Aspen probably have a greater chance of getting to Aspen on SkyWest because the compensation offered by the trunk carriers is greater. It is the Denver to Aspen passengers who are really at risk. Executives at Stay Aspen might want to consider warning travelers to Aspen that the incentives offered SkyWest increase the probability the flights will not go.

For the record, I stopped flying SkyWest in 2011.

Vail does not suffer such problems during the winter because it is the trunk airlines, not SkyWest, that provides the service. Yes, flights do get diverted. A flight form Dallas, for example, was diverted to Denver due to a mechanical problem. However, the cancellations and delays seem far fewer. A key factor is the absence of an intermediary, SkyWest, in the process.

Philip Verleger