Early stats point to banner Christmas week

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Mountains saw four days with around 20,000 skier visits

While the numbers are still rolling in and visitors are still flying out, initial reports from the skiing, lodging and airline sectors suggest that the recent holiday week may have been among the busiest in Aspen’s history.

The Aspen Skiing Co. saw at least four days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve when between 19,000 and 20,000 skiers were schussing the slopes of its four mountains, according to SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle.

“That’s a great sign,” Hanle said. “When we look back at history, our biggest days are right around 20,000. To get up into that range for four days or so is a big deal.”

The closure of the gondola on Aspen Mountain between Monday and Wednesday of this week due to a mechanical problem did affect traffic on Ajax, Hanle said. Yet initial reports suggest that many skiers who had been planning on skiing in Aspen elected to head for other mountains instead of staying home.

“Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass all saw a bump,” Hanle said. “Our total skier days stayed strong.”

All those skiers needed somewhere to sleep, and although local lodges are still tabulating their occupancy numbers, one close observer estimates that between 93 and 98 percent of the beds in the upper valley may have been filled in recent days.

“It looks like we are approaching a pretty close to complete sellout from the 27th to the 31st [of December],” said Bill Tomcich, president of central reservations service Stay Aspen Snowmass.

Advance bookings leading into the holiday week had been strong, Tomcich said, and those looking for last-minute accommodations in Aspen were sometimes forced to hop around to make their vacations work. 

“We had a guest who was so determined to spend five nights in Aspen that we wound up splitting them between three different [lodging] properties,” Tomcich said.

Tomcich estimated that Aspen’s occupancy rate could drop by more than a third by Sunday, Jan. 5 before bumping up again next weekend, although not to the level seen in town during Christmas week.

One rather unpleasant byproduct of the hordes descending on Aspen in recent days has been long departure lines at the check-in and security screening areas of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport.

Tomcich has been sending e-mail blasts to guests at local lodges urging them to arrive at the airport at least two hours before their flights, but in some cases, even that lead time hasn’t been enough.

“I heard a story about someone who missed their flight to San Francisco after showing up 2.5 hours in advance,” Tomcich said.

Crowding during peak times has been a recurring problem at the Aspen airport, and during the fall off season airport workers reconfigured the layout of the security checkpoint to improve traffic flow.

“We have a serious bottleneck in the terminal building today,” said Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Director Jim Elwood. 

To address the problem, a master plan approved in 2012 that will govern the airport’s development in the coming decades calls for a new terminal building that could be as large as 80,000 square feet. Until that structure is built, though, the lines are likely to continue.

As of Thursday, Elwood hadn’t yet received Aspen’s air traffic numbers for the holiday week from commercial and private carriers and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still, Aspen’s post New Year’s Day exodus appeared to be fully underway on Thursday as long lines of commercial and private jets assembled on the tarmac at Sardy Field.

The two busiest days in the history of Sardy Field have both fallen on Jan. 2 in recent years. On that day in 2011, 370 aircraft flew in and out of the airport to mark the busiest day ever. The same day in 2012 holds the record for runner up, with 341 flights taking off and landing.

Such crowding has led to complaints in the past from some commercial airline travelers whose planes have gotten stuck behind private jets in the takeoff line. Commercial jets have priority over private jets while landing at the Aspen airport, but not while taking off, according to Elwood.

With a single runway to accommodate airplane takeoffs and landings alike, the Aspen airport is physically limited in how quickly it can accommodate departing and arriving planes during peak times.

“We are talking about roughly six days per year where it becomes a physical challenge with our taxi-way system,” Elwood said. “There are moments where commercial airplanes are waiting behind private planes.”

It remains to be seen exactly how the recent holiday stacks up to previous years in terms of airplane traffic. Yet Elwood said that comparing holiday statistics at Sardy Field from one year to the next can be tricky, since the numbers fluctuate depending on whether Christmas falls on a weekend or during the week, as it did this year. (Weekend holidays tend to draw more airplane traffic).

Inclement weather on peak days can also drive down incoming plane traffic, Elwood said.

Still, he said air traffic appears to be up this winter both because of the improving national economy and because there are more commercial airline flights coming into and out of Aspen than in the past.

“Last year we were down a bit with the departure of Frontier Airlines [from the Aspen market],” Elwood said. “This year there are a lot of pieces that are coming together, and it seems to be a busy time at the airport overall.” 

Delta Airlines started serving Sardy Field on Dec. 21 with daily flights from Atlanta and Saturday flights from Minneapolis/St. Paul. The company’s entry into the Aspen market was supported by a $350,000 public subsidy from Aspen, Pitkin County, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association and Snowmass Village. SkiCo also contributed to the package, but hasn’t disclosed the amount of its donation.

United Airlines also expanded its service this winter from Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles to Aspen, while continuing service from Chicago at last year’s levels. And American Airlines is operating daily flights from Dallas and Los Angeles to Aspen, as it has in the winter and summer seasons since December 2011.

Because of the growth in service, there are more seats available on Aspen-bound planes than any comparable mountain resort airport this winter. The Aspen airport has about 36,000 more inbound seats this winter than last, bringing the total to just over 208,000, according to numbers provided by Tomcich.

nelson@nelsonharvey.com