Longer runway at Eagle County Airport could boost local tourism
EAGLE, Colorado ” One of Aspen’s biggest resort competitors is undertaking a $22 million runway expansion so it can accommodate more commercial airline flights during winters and summers.
Eagle County Airport is closed to most commercial traffic until Sept. 1 so 1,000 feet can be added to its runway. When the work is finished, the runway will be 9,000 feet long. The addition will be particularly beneficial to summer tourism for the resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek, said Eagle County Manager Keith Montag. He said the airport hopes to attract direct commercial service from major markets such as New York City during summers after the runway is completed.
The Eagle County Airport faced the same issue as the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport during hot weather. The combination of high temperatures and the altitude limits the amount of passengers and fuel that commercial flights can load and still take off with their existing runways, said Chris Anderson, terminal manager at the Eagle County Airport. By extending the runway, aircraft can increase their payloads and fuel loads to reach destinations further away with nonstop flights, he said.
The addition of the 1,000 feet is the third phase of a three-year project to improve Eagle County Airport’s runway. The Federal Aviation Administration is covering 95 percent of the cost, Montag said.
The Pitkin County commissioners last September authorized an environmental study on the feasibility of lengthening the Aspen-Pitkin County runway by up to 1,000 feet. The business community touts the extension as a way to make the airport more attractive to air carriers. Travelers could fly direct between Aspen and a greater variety of hubs. Currently, Aspen’s summer service is limited to Denver and Los Angeles. Extra flexibility is critical to a resort’s success, said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen-Snowmass and the business community’s liaison to the airline industry.
The Eagle County Airport has surpassed Aspen-Pitkin County in recent winters in passenger boardings, Tomcich said. Eagle County has “fewer flights but more seats” because of the larger aircraft that fly there. A significant amount of its service is from 757s, which can handle as many as 194 passengers. The biggest aircraft serving Aspen hold 74 passengers.
Although the Vail airport is busier during winters, Aspen’s airport holds an edge in annual passenger boardings, according to Tomcich. Although that could change with the Eagle County Airport’s runway addition, Tomcich isn’t concerned for Aspen from a competitive standpoint. “If anything it’s going to benefit Aspen,” he said.
“If the Eagle County Airport adds summer flights, it could give more options to tourists bound for Aspen”, he said. Currently, tourists flying to Aspen from the East Coast must make a connection in Denver. A direct flight into Eagle County could accommodate large groups and eliminate the need for a connection.
The Aspen-Pitkin County Airport will always have the advantage of being close to town. It’s about a 10-minute drive between Aspen and its airport. The Eagle County Airport is 30 minutes from Vail (and 90 minutes from Aspen).
The Aspen business community markets the Eagle County Airport “very delicately,” Tomcich said. The Aspen Skiing Co. touts Aspen’s airport but also mentions the Eagle option. Marketing the Eagle County Airport too aggressively runs a risk of exposing tourists to the competition, and losing them.
Tomcich said it is possible for Eagle County to attract more summer airline service, but probably for a price. A study of mountain resort airports by the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber Visitors Bureau showed that nearly one-third of the seats available to Eagle County during winters are subsidized by Vail Resorts and the business community. Aspen Skiing Co. doesn’t subsidize airline seats, although it markets the flights.
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