Due to the global coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered the local winter-spring tourism season three weeks early, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport will shift into offseason mode this weekend with a large number of flight reductions.
Bill Tomcich, the community’s liaison with the airline industry, said in a local occupancy update to business leaders that it’s been an extremely tumultuous week for commercial carriers “as plans are constantly changing.” On the bright side, the airlines, he wrote, made good on their commitments to maintain full winter schedules in and out of Aspen until the vast majority of guests were able to leave.
Most of those departures occurred Saturday, Sunday and Monday following Gov. Jared Polis’ order last Saturday to shut down the state’s winter-recreation resorts, which included Aspen Skiing Co.’s four local ski areas, through this Sunday. On Wednesday, the governor extended those closures for an additional two weeks, through April 6, which doesn’t bode well for a potential late-season reopening.
“There’s no sugarcoating it, this means huge losses to our local economy in March, which is one of our biggest months,” Tomcich said in an interview this week. “The coronavirus has been devastating to the entire travel industry.”
Departures for the vast majority of Aspen’s visitors went smoothly over the weekend through Tuesday, due to clear weather and a slowdown in general-aviation traffic. Saturday through Monday, the airport handled 94 outbound flights representing more than 6,000 passengers. Flight loads started to taper off on Monday afternoon.
As an example of how the situation is continually in flux, Tomcich was speaking to a reporter midday on Wednesday when an email came through from Delta Air Lines. The company said it was immediately canceling its Aspen-to-Atlanta and Aspen-to-Los Angeles nonstop flights that remained for the current tourism season.
“Looks like most of our passengers were able to take advantage of flights on Monday and [Tuesday],” the communication said. “Any remaining passengers should be able to be rerouted over [Salt Lake City], although the earthquake complicates things.” (A 5.7-magnitude earthquake hit the Salt Lake City area on Wednesday morning.)
“That’s a great example of just how fluid this is,” Tomcich said. “The airlines are constantly making last-minute decisions based on passenger demand.” He added that other mountain airports across the state — including those in Eagle, Gunnison and Montrose — have seen their direct flights drawn down far more rapidly than those into Aspen.
United Airlines is planning to suspend all of its nonstop flights from Aspen to Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco by this weekend, he said. United will continue serving the Aspen market from Denver through the offseason with a minimum of four flights daily.
American Airlines plans to suspend all of its Aspen flights over the next several days with a plan to resume nonstop service to and from Dallas/Fort Worth by early June.
For now, Delta is expected to continue its offseason, twice-daily service to Salt Lake City, but as with just about everything surrounding the coronavirus crisis, the situation could change.
The month of June, when Aspen’s summer tourism season starts to crank up, is currently an unknown. Tomcich said he believes the airlines have yet to make decisions on their summer schedules. In the U.S., the pandemic rates have yet to flatten out, restrictions on large gatherings remain, and major events such as music and food festivals are being canceled daily or postponed until later in the year.
Through the governor’s order on Wednesday, Colorado’s restaurants are closed for dine-in services at least through April 17. Casinos, theaters, gyms and music venues are closed. When the economic and social nightmare will end is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, the airlines are shrinking their hubs due to the low worldwide demand. A Wednesday update from ASM Global Route Development, an airline consulting firm, said in terms of global carrying capacity, United’s reduction will be 60 percent for May. Delta’s overall capacity reduction will be 70 percent “until demand starts to recover,” and the carrier plans to park more than 600 airplanes. American is reducing its international capacity by 75 percent through May 6 and is anticipating domestic reductions of 20 percent in April and 30 percent in May.
All major airlines appear to be facing huge financial losses. The ASM update noted that Airlines for America, a trade association representing North American carriers, has proposed a $50 billion-plus relief package from the U.S. government.
“Recent statements from the [Trump administration] indicate a willingness to support some level of the package,” the update adds.
As for Aspen commercial flight activity during most of the April-May offseason, Tomcich said that as of now, he expects there will be six flights daily: the aforementioned four Denver flights provided by United and the two Salt Lake City flights served by Delta. Prior to the crisis, the local airport was expected to accommodate nine daily flights during the offseason.