With the Pitkin County Board of Health’s red-level COVID-19 restriction banning in-house restaurant dining, set to go into effect Sunday, many visitor-dependent businesses “should probably brace for a further drop in demand” for air travel into Aspen.
That’s what Bill Tomcich, the community’s liaison to the two commercial airlines serving the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, suggested in an email to local stakeholders following the health board’s decision on Monday. Last month, United Airlines and American Airlines scaled back their January flight schedules into ASE when they realized that demand wasn’t as strong as they had previously predicted.
“It’s obvious that public health orders are a significant driver of leisure travel demand right now. The airlines are watching these trends carefully and adjusting capacity accordingly,” Tomcich wrote. “I heard a recent quote that ‘the airlines are chasing demand like dogs chasing a ball’ right now.
“The latest public health orders in Pitkin County that go into effect this Sunday will not help [in the] short term, and we should probably brace for a further drop in demand. Hopefully the difficult decisions made earlier this week by the board of health will lead to the eventual relaxation of restrictions sooner than later if successful in quickly flattening the [COVID-19] curve. I am certain that when visitor restrictions are eased, we will see a commensurate surge in demand that the airlines will be most willing and able to serve,” he added.
Tomcich expounded on his remarks in an interview on Friday. He tempered his email comments to a degree, saying, “It’s just too soon to tell. There may be some people who really want to come to a quieter Aspen.”
Generally, the in-house dining restriction may make visiting Aspen-Snowmass “less attractive” to visitors who want the myriad food-and-drink options typically offered following a day on the slopes, he said.
“It’s not going to help,” Tomcich said of level red’s effect on air-travel demand.
He noted that other ski resort communities are downgrading from high-level coronavirus warnings just as Aspen is moving into the red. Crested Butte, in Gunnison County, currently enjoys yellow status and some of the lowest COVID-19 restrictions in the state. Summit County recently moved from red to orange, which is where Pitkin County stood at the time of Monday’s health board decision to upgrade into red status.
Tomcich said he doesn’t think there will be a knee-jerk reaction by the airlines to lower flight capacity this week. The “good news,” he said, is that seat capacity into ASE continues to be strong, despite the airlines’ December reduction in overall January flights.
With change fees having been eliminated by the airlines as a response to the pandemic, would-be visitors may be tempted at the last minute to go to places that have fewer restrictions in place, he said. Or they might remain undeterred, given that last-minute fares to other destinations are likely to be much higher. Ticket holders also can bank their credits with the airlines and stay home.
On a more positive note, Tomcich said that if the red-level restrictions produce the desired effect of reducing the number of new COVID-19 cases — leading the health board to return to orange status — demand for flights is likely to improve. “And when that happens, United Airlines and American Airlines will be in a great position to meet that demand at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport,” he said.
Tomcich, former president of central reservations firm Stay Aspen Snowmass, is a consultant to the group Fly Aspen Snowmass, a partnership among the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Snowmass Tourism and the Aspen Skiing Co. Together, they work to maintain relationships with the airlines and bring more visitors to the area.
Looking at winter numbers
Tomcich also spoke Friday about how winter air travel into the local airport is playing out.
Combined, United and American scheduled 592 commercial flights to Aspen in December, a decrease of 14.7%, compared with 694 flights in December 2019. However, last year’s total also reflected flights by Delta Air Lines, which suspended its Aspen service in mid-2020.
The total number of passengers flown into ASE in December was 39,974 — a 38.4% decrease compared with the same month last year. Comparatively, the Transportation Safety Administration reported a decrease of 62.4% in domestic air travel for December, Tomcich said.
Flight loads generally ran about 50% in December, meaning half the seats on the average commercial flight to Aspen were filled, he continued. In December 2019, about 75% of available seats to ASE were filled.
Good weather and fewer scheduled commercial flights led to a minimal number of delays and cancellations in December 2020, he said. Exceptions to the smooth air-traffic patterns were Dec. 12, when heavy snows hit the area, and Dec. 13, when a private jet had a hard landing and blew out two tires.
From Dec. 14 to the end of the month, there were a total of 11 inbound diversions, “a number of which continued on to ASE after the weather improved,” Tomcich said in his email. In the same two-week span, there were 12 cancellations out of 401 scheduled inbound flights, for a completion rate of 95%.
“Last year, there were a total of 44 diversions and 52 cancellations out of 550 flights scheduled over the same exact time span, for an overall completion factor of 82.9%,” he wrote.
Private-jet traffic during the holiday season was “close to as busy as it ever was,” especially on the weekends after Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, which comes as no surprise, Tomcich said Friday. “But it was less problematic this year than in years past.”
In late December, as a response to decreased demand to ASE, United Airlines cut 68 flights from its January schedule. American Airlines had far fewer cuts and made them much earlier.
While the overall number of cuts may seem dramatic, Tomcich said the airlines may have been optimistic during late fall in scheduling for the new year.
“The airlines are putting products on the shelf with hope they will sell,” he said. When they see a slowdown in demand as they get closer to the start of a new month, “they may pull a product from the shelf. They don’t want them to spoil. They don’t want to fly empty planes.”
Strong markets, seat capacity
In other remarks, Tomcich said that Denver, Dallas and Houston continue to be strong air-travel markets from which Aspen is pulling. Because of the COVID-19 uptick in California, the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets have been weaker than usual.
The February flight schedule has been published and is a better fit with expected demand, he said. Seat capacity is strong through Feb. 10, with American flying six to eight planes daily into ASE from four hubs and United flying 12 to 14 daily flights from five hubs. The total number of flights from now through Feb. 10 represents a 33% decrease from what was offered last year at the same time, when Delta also was part of the equation.
From Feb. 11 through March 3, as the current schedule now stands, American will have nine to 10 daily flights, and United will have 12 to 15 daily flights into the Aspen airport.
“ASE is still better connected to both American and United’s hubs than virtually any other destination,” Tomcich said.