Commercial airlines American and Delta have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation if they can temporarily suspend their services to and from Aspen — flights the carriers had to keep on their schedules during May as a condition of their eligibility for stimulus funds under the federal CARES Act.
Bill Tomcich, a local air-travel consultant and the community’s liaison to the airlines, said that in the case of American Airlines, the Aspen suspension may be extremely brief.
Because of its obligations under the CARES Act, American has had a unique routing since May 7 from Dallas-Fort Worth to Eagle, then Eagle to Aspen, then Aspen to Montrose, and back to DFW. Dubbed the “Mountain Hopper,” the route has gained attention among media outlets and travel consultants because the 29-mile Eagle-to-Aspen leg is currently the shortest commercial jet flight in the nation.
American is looking to scrap the five-day-per-week “Hopper” earlier than planned, and to accomplish that, the airline officially had to seek DOT approval to suspend DFW service to Eagle, Aspen and Montrose, Tomcich said.
On Thursday, Tomcich confirmed information from an American Airlines official that the carrier will resume daily nonstop service between DFW and Aspen next Thursday, June 4, as it originally had planned. As for the “Hopper” route, flights are scheduled at least through Monday.
American canceled its spring Aspen service on March 21 amid the onset of COVID-19 across the U.S. and its effect on the travel industry, a few days before the CARES Act was approved and also prior to the DOT’s publishing of the airlines’ minimum service obligations. The return of the airline’s Aspen service through the “Hopper” evolved later, as part of those obligations, Tomcich said.
With demand for flights extremely low nationwide, the airlines lobbied the DOT in early May to loosen its mandate and allow reduced service. Each airline was allowed to shed 5% of its airports and had until May 18 to submit its choices. That led to American’s decision to place Eagle-Aspen-Montrose on the list.
In Delta Air Lines’ case, the daily route between Salt Lake City and Aspen is likely to be suspended, Tomcich said. That suspension date has not yet been determined as Delta is trying to accommodate currently booked passengers.
Delta kept the route alive since the onset of COVID-19, primarily because of the stimulus obligation, with few cancellations, according to Tomcich.
In April, the SLC-ASE route averaged less than three passengers per flight. “It doesn’t surprise me that Delta has submitted a request to suspend the Aspen service,” Tomcich said.
As far as local commercial airline activity from June 4 through early July is concerned, Tomcich reiterated that American is set to offer the daily service between Dallas-Fort Worth and Aspen. How long Delta will continue to offer flights between Salt Lake City and Aspen is not yet known, but the DOT’s tentative approval of the suspension requests and the weak passenger loads suggests that it won’t be for much longer.
Of course, if demand picks up this summer, the airlines can adjust their schedules and add flights to the local market.
Whatever happens with Delta, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport will continue to be served by United Airlines in June with 12 flights per week between Denver and Aspen — down from the pre-pandemic schedule of 56 flights per week. Along with American’s daily flights from DFW, the weekly commercial flight total into Aspen for most of June will be at least 19.
Though the DOT gave its preliminary blessing to the suspension requests, the public was given an opportunity to file an objection by the end of the business day on Thursday. Tomcich said he looked at the DOT’s docket after the deadline and there didn’t appear to be any objections related to Aspen airport service exceptions.
More should be known about summer commercial flight service after Saturday, both locally and nationwide, when many U.S. airlines are expected to file their July schedules in light of the travel slump created by the coronavirus crisis.
The situation continues to be extremely fluid, Tomcich said.
“Everything can change. The airlines are going through multiple scenarios — short-term, mid-term and long-term — in planning their future schedules,” he added.