Near the end of a meeting Tuesday at the Aspen Meadows, experts had difficulty answering what appeared to be a central question in the discussion about future growth and expansion of the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
A lot of data was presented to the dozens of ASE Vision committee members who were present, all of them having been charged with the task of guiding a vision for the airport’s redevelopment. A highlight, perhaps, of the various statistics was the projection that the number of “enplanements,” or passengers boarding an aircraft at the Aspen air-transportation facility to go elsewhere — usually back to wherever they came from — will grow an average of 0.8 percent per year, from 272,461 to 318,167, over the next 20 years.
But why — the question raised from the audience — is there an expectation of such growth given the continued increase in air fares, hotel rates, ski passes, dining and other tourism-repeated expenses? Is there a threshold? And why has there been no analysis or talk about that topic to date?
Gabe Preston, a community planner and economic analyst with RPI Consulting, attempted a response.
While costs are rising higher and higher, Aspen-area tourism continues to grow, albeit at a slower, more measured pace than most people realize, he suggested.
“Maybe there is some point where it’s so ridiculously expensive that demand stops,” Preston said, before adding, “I’m not sure there is a threshold point.”
If hotel, dining and skiing costs were cheaper — and there were a greater supply of lodging rooms — Aspen and Snowmass Village would see far more visitors than they already do, he said.
But even with prices climbing, growth of the local tourism economy is still evident and quantifiable.
“Customers keep showing up here, one way or another,” Preston added.
Tuesday’s meeting was the third large-scale gathering of the year under what’s been labeled the “ASE Vision” process. More than 100 people have signed up to serve on five committees: four small ones and one “overarching” group that will make a recommendation on the level of airport expansion later this year to Pitkin County commissioners.
Last week’s meeting concerned population, tourism and airport trends, according to the county’s PowerPoint presentation that kicked off the gathering.
The event’s purpose was to “explore potential implications of forecasted industry changes in service, aircraft and air space from a regional growth management perspective,” County Manager Jon Peacock said, echoing what was listed on a big video screen.
There were other goals as well, such as establishing “a baseline of past and present air service, and current conditions at ASE.” ASE, of course, is the official three-letter industry code for Aspen’s airport.
Preston broke down a lot of information in simple terms, primarily talking about population and tourism.
He said jobs based in Pitkin County peaked in 2008, just before the Great Recession, at 21,942, nearly 10,000 jobs more than in 2001. As of 2017, the county stood at 20,996 jobs, Preston said.
Between 2000 and 2017, the growth rate both in the number of households and housing units in the county has been about the same: households, 7,248 to 8,491; housing units, 11,901 to 13,397.
The housing vacancy rate — defined as “part-time residences” — decreased slightly from the 2000s to the 2010s, Preston suggested, going from an estimated 39.6 percent to 36.6 percent. He said he believes that there has been a small percentage of second-homeowners moving to the county on a full-time basis.
Population-wise in the Roaring Fork Valley, Pitkin County grew 1.8 percent between 2004 and 2013, and then that rate slowed to 0.8 percent between 2013 and 2017. Garfield County grew 2.1 percent during that first period measured, then slowed to 0.6 percent. Growth in western Eagle County — the portion of that county located in the valley — has been essentially flat.
During peak tourism season, Pitkin County’s population swells to 53,062, Preston said. Its year-round, full-time population, as estimated in 2017, is 17,747.
Also in the county, and at the Aspen Skiing Co.’s four mountains, skier days have been on the rise since peaking at 1.44 million during the 2006-07 season, just before the recession. After falling to 1.33 million during the 2011-12 season, they rose to 1.52 million in the 2015-16 season.
Other takeaways from Preston’s presentation:
• July is Aspen’s busiest month with regard to sheer numbers of visitors, but it’s also a time when the community experiences a lot of day visitors who don’t necessarily book hotel rooms.
• In terms of lodging supply, the Aspen-Snowmass market has been largely flat since 2009.
• Existing lodging and RBOs, or “rentals by owner,” can accommodate an additional 3,000 to 4,500 overnight visitors during peak winter and summer seasons.
A ‘spoke’ in the industry’s wheel
The second half of the meeting included comments and data presented by Linda Perry, an air industry economic specialist with global consulting firm LeighFischer.
Perry described the Aspen airport as a “spoke” in the airline industry: a destination airport for visitors, an origin facility for residents. In 2018, Roaring Fork Valley residents took an average of one commercial airline trip, while visitors to the valley took 2.4 trips, she said.
In March 2018, a peak month for ASE, the average count of daily departures was eight to Denver, six each to Chicago and Los Angeles, less than four to Dallas-Fort Worth and less than three to Houston, according to Perry.
She noted that a regional airline pilot shortage currently exists, presenting” a serious challenge” to the industry. Factors in that shortage include a decrease in the overall number of military pilots, the high expense of flight training, legislative changes and low pay (until recently).
Perry said between 2010 and 2018, air traffic has been increasing in nine of the 10 markets that are destinations for commercial flights originating from Aspen — despite rising air fares.
Speaking generally about aircraft fleets operated by SkyWest Airlines, which has agreements with carriers United, Delta and American to serve ASE, she said new orders for older models such as the CRJ-700s simply aren’t happening. The life expectancy of regional aircraft like the CRJ-700s is 16 to 20 years, much lower than the maximum term of use for larger planes serving major destinations such as the DC-9, one of the longest-lasting aircraft in operation, she said.
Perry added that in 2018 at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, local residents accounted for 28 percent of all passengers. She said December-to-March travelers comprise more than half of the facility’s annual passenger totals.