Private flights falling from favor at Aspen airport? | VailDaily.com

Private flights falling from favor at Aspen airport?

Scott Condon
scondon@aspentimes.com
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado ” Bad weather and the sour economy have teamed to take a big bite out of the private aircraft traffic at Aspen’s airport over the last two winters.

Corporate jet use has been about as popular during the recession as a Red Sox hat in Yankee Stadium, but statistics show that use of private planes during ski seasons tailed off in Aspen even before the economy tanked.

From the winter of 2000-01 through 2006-07, there were typically between 8,600 and 10,300 private aircraft operations at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, according to statistics provided by the aviation director’s office. The number of operations plummeted 25 percent in the winter of 2007-08, then fell another 2 percent this winter, the statistics show.

There were 9,214 private aircraft flights from December through March 2006-07. The following ski season there were only 6,902. Last ski season, when the travel industry was plagued by the recession, the number of flights fell to 6,730.

There are probably several factors feeding that trend, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the local business community’s representative on airport issues. Soaring fuel costs contributed to the drastic decrease between the winters of 2007 and 2008, he said.

The high price of jet fuel coincided with the addition of direct commercial flights between Aspen and its major markets of Los Angles and Chicago.

Even wealthy people conduct a cost-benefit analysis when they travel, so the high cost of fuel might have persuaded some of them to forego private aircraft, Tomcich speculated.

“It probably shifts the pendulum back in favor of flying in commercially,” he said.

A source intimately familiar with the private aircraft traffic at Aspen said the weather during the winter of 2007-08 played a major role in the reduced number of operations. That source didn’t want to be quoted by name because he lacked authorization to speak.

The 2007-08 winter brought near record snowfall to the Colorado mountains, including the Aspen area. Numerous private and commercial flights were canceled or diverted when the Aspen airport was socked in. A lot of private aircraft used the Garfield County Airport at Rifle or the Grand Junction Airport instead.

The number of operations didn’t bounce back last winter because of the recession, according to the source. The use of private jets for business has dropped this year in large part because of perception, according to a report on National Public Radio. Right or wrong, use of private jets has become a symbol of excess during the recession. People also have been cautious about flaunting their wealth, so that could cut down on private jet use for personal travel.

But the decreased number of private aircraft flights at Aspen could simply be a product of bigger jets. Fractional ownership jet companies have touted larger aircraft that allow clients to stretch out and bring their friends.

The latest models of corporate jets, such as the Gulfstream V and the Global Express, hold 15 to 18 passengers and are large enough for a person to stand upright. So, larger parties are flying into places like Aspen.

“Instead of one couple and a poodle, it’s the whole family and friends,” said the source familiar with Aspen’s private aircraft operations. As a result, the number of passengers flying to Aspen on private aircraft is probably holding steady despite the decrease in operations, he said.

David Ulane, assistant director of aviation at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, concurred that the size of aircraft is influencing the number of private flights. He said the airport staff is aware of the trend for fewer operations during this decade.

“What we have seen in that time, which we think accounts for the reduced operations, is an overall increase in the size and capacity of the general aviation aircraft that operate here,” Ulane said.

The decline in private flights in Aspen hasn’t been as great as in other parts of the country, Ulane said. He believes some Aspen travelers have the wherewithal to continue using private jets despite the condition of the economy.

The use of private jets and other private aircraft peaked ” in terms of operations ” during the winters of 2000-01 and 2001-02. There were slightly more than 10,300 operations in both of those winters. March 2001 was the single busiest month this decade for general aviation at the Aspen airport with 3,040 flights.

scondon@aspentimes.com