Eagle eyes Aspen’s business
ASPEN – The Pitkin County Airport’s loss of passengers this spring will be Eagle County Airport’s gain.Pitkin County is closing its airport from April 9 until the evening of June 7 to reconstruct the runway. United Airlines hopes to make up for the loss of Aspen flights by adding service to Eagle County, the next-closest airport with commercial service.United is doubling the number of flights between Denver and Eagle over that time, and – because of some of the aircraft used – it is increasing the number of available seats by 112 percent, Eagle County officials said Wednesday.April and May are the slowest months at the Pitkin County Airport, which explains the timing for the disruptive project. Tourist traffic slows to a trickle during those months. The traditional use has been locals fleeing for surf and sun after a long winter.Even if the prospective numbers aren’t huge, United Airlines and Eagle County officials hope to lure some of that business rather than watch Roaring Fork Valley residents drive to Denver or Grand Junction.And for Eagle County officials, the closure in Aspen provides another way to showcase the growing regional airport to new customers.Eagle’s nestA survey of passengers using the Eagle County Airport in March 2006 showed that one in five was traveling to or from Pitkin County, according to terminal manager Chris Anderson.Among those passengers, 26 percent cited convenience as the reason they used the Eagle County Airport, while another 22 percent said proximity to their destination, Anderson said. Another 20 percent said they liked the service available on large jet aircraft, and 19 percent noted the safety and reliability of flights at that airport.Kent Myers, president of a consulting firm called Airplanners, has helped develop business to the Eagle County Airport for the last 18 years. He said focus never was on business from the Roaring Fork Valley, but it evolved to be an important market.The first commercial flights were brought into the Eagle County Airport in 1989. Since then, it has grown into the third-largest in the state, behind Denver and Colorado Springs, and is really hitting its stride as a regional facility, Myers said.Last ski season, 257,000 seats on commercial flights were available into Eagle County Airport, and 179,000 passengers boarded flights, according to Bill Tomcich, president of the Stay Aspen/Snowmass central bookings agency and the business community’s liaison to airlines.In comparison, there were 151,000 seats available on flights into Pitkin County Airport last ski season, and 114,000 passengers boarded.Complementary, not competitiveMyers views the Eagle and Pitkin county airports as more complementary than competitive: “Both airports have their place,” he said.Pitkin County has nonstop flights from important markets such as Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, he noted. But Eagle County offers significantly more direct service to cities east of Denver, such as two daily flights to New York City during winters. Eagle County Airport has nonstop flights to 12 cities during winters.As the Roaring Fork Valley emerged as such as important segment for the Eagle County Airport, it became a natural target for marketing attempts. Residents of Pitkin and Garfield counties received direct mail pieces touting the airport as an alternative the past two summers. Anderson said he feels they were successful in attracting business, although there were no definitive results. A marketing committee of government and business representatives hasn’t decided whether to send another direct mail piece this summer, he said.Tomcich doesn’t look at the Eagle County Airport’s extra service during the closure as a threat to steal business. He thinks the extra service to Eagle makes good business sense for United Airlines and accommodates people flying into or out of the Roaring Fork Valley.”I am very pleased with what Eagle has done,” Tomcich said.