Aspen airport is flying high compared to national trends |

Aspen airport is flying high compared to national trends

Rustin Gudim Special to The Aspen TimesPassengers board a United Airlines flight recently at the Pitkin County Airport. Boardings were up in December.

Lower airfares helped the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport buck the trend that plagued the airline industry last year, according to aviation and tourism officials.

Aspen’s air carriers saw just a small drop in passenger boardings last year while the U.S. airline industry as a whole saw numbers sag by 6 percent.

Overall capacity was sliced about 7 percent overall last year yet it increased significantly in Aspen.

“We’re really pleased about how the year ended up,” said Jim Elwood, aviation director at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

Frontier Airlines’ Lynx service operated in Aspen for its first full year in 2009. The competition drove down airfares and enticed both locals and tourists to use the airport.

Elwood said the most significant change in 2009 was a greater amount of business from locals. More people from Aspen to Glenwood Springs flew out of Aspen rather than drove to Denver International Airport or other departure points, he said.

The low fares made the Aspen airport more attractive for destination guests, as well, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass, a bookings agency. In the past, fewer than half of destination guests have flown directly into the Aspen airport, he said. Many flew to Denver, Eagle and even Grand Junction, then drove to Aspen. He termed the loss of passengers to other airports “spillage.” That loss will likely fall this winter, he said.

Tomcich said he believes the high cost of renting a car in Denver right now also contributes to increased use of the Aspen airport. “The option of flying directly into [Aspen] has never been more convenient or more affordable than it is right now,” he said.

Figures released by the airport show that almost 220,000 passengers boarded commercial flights in Aspen last year. That’s down only 1.4 percent despite the recession. In addition, it is up about 20 percent from the 2007 volume.

Lynx snared nearly a quarter of the market with 51,354 passenger boardings. But that didn’t come at the expense of United Express, the biggest carrier in the market. United Express service operated by SkyWest Airlines logged 127,337 passenger boardings, roughly the same as the prior year. Its share was 58 percent of the market.

Marissa Snow, SkyWest manager of corporate communications, said the company is pleased with its 2009 performance in Aspen. It “speaks volumes” about the efforts of employees there, she said.

SkyWest has operated the United Express service at Aspen for four years. “We had a very challenging first winter,” she acknowledged. There were widespread complaints about poor customer service and handling, or mishandling, of luggage. Those issues have largely disappeared.

Both Lynx and United Express ended 2009 with a bang, and that bodes well for the ski season. Passenger boardings were up 17 percent for Lynx in December over the prior year. They were up 16 percent for United Express.

Lynx added weekend flights between Aspen and Denver. United Express boosted historic levels of service between Aspen and Denver, and its nonstop service between Aspen and Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.

That extra capacity at low airfares has paid dividends for the carriers and for Aspen-Snowmass, Tomcich said.

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