If the recently full planeloads from Denver and Dallas are any indication, Aspen’s tourism economy is mounting a strong comeback from its COVID-19 slump.
“We have some jam-packed flights,” said Bill Tomcich, the community’s liaison to the three commercial airlines serving Aspen and a private consultant.
On Tuesday afternoon, he said nearly every United Airlines flight from Denver to Aspen is full, or close to it, from now until the Fourth of July. United has 12 scheduled flights from Denver to Aspen every week through July 5.
“That was not the case last week,” Tomcich said of United’s bookings into Aspen. “They are now either booked to its authorized capacity or within a handful of seats of it.”
United is not the only airline that’s seeing a major boost in demand for its service to ASE, the three-letter industry code for the local airfield.
Flights from Dallas-Fort Worth on American Airlines, Tomcich said, also are at capacity and have been that way for the last few weeks. While that currently is just one flight daily, American will ramp up to two flights per day July 1-5.
“This short-term demand has really caught me by surprise,” he said.
While CRJ-700 jets the airlines use to ferry passengers into and out of Aspen average about 70 seats, capacity means something different in the COVID-19 era. Some airlines are removing seats from the mix to enhance social distancing procedures, while others are filling every seat, Tomcich said. However, he added, many of the United and American flights utilize every seat on the plane.
Tomcich said he saw a report from resort tracking firm DestiMetrics that shows Aspen-Snowmass lodging occupancy for the July 4 weekend at about 42 percent. Due to local public health orders surrounding the coronavirus, hotels in the county can only book up to 50 percent of their overall capacity.
Starting July 6, United will be tripling its passenger capacity into Aspen with four flights daily from Denver, plus the resumption of nonstop daily service from San Francisco and Chicago. That means six flights daily, save for five flights on Tuesdays, which total 41 per week provided by the airline compared with only two and 12 now.
In addition to the extra flight from Dallas July 1-5, American will be adding a daily nonstop flight from Chicago as well, starting on July 7. Also starting July 7, the Dallas route to Aspen goes back to once daily, save for two times on Saturdays, bringing the airline’s total number of flights per week to 15.
“I would expect these schedules to remain in place through early August,” Tomcich said. He expects United Airlines to add a fifth daily flight from Denver in early August, but that schedule has yet to be announced.
‘Hopper’ route scrapped
To fulfill its obligations to the U.S. Department of Transportation after receiving federal stimulus funds — money that was designed to maintain minimal service in most U.S. markets after the demand for commercial air travel slowed to a crawl amid the onset of the pandemic — American Airlines operated a unique route known as the “Mountain Hopper” from Dallas to Eagle, Aspen and Montrose. After Montrose, the plane returned back to Dallas.
The loop was a way of maintaining service from Dallas to the Western Slope despite extremely low demand. It gained a lot of attention among media outlets and travel consultants because the 29-mile Eagle-to-Aspen leg was the shortest commercial jet flight in the nation.
American had canceled its nonstop service from Dallas to Aspen on March 21, a few days before the CARES Act approval, which led to the implementation of the “Hopper” route on May 7. The route was scrapped on June 1, and nonstop service from Dallas to Aspen resumed on June 4, and to Eagle and Montrose as well, Tomcich said.
Tomcich said he was on an American flight from DFW to Aspen two weeks ago, on June 10, and it was packed. When he made the reservation 14 days before that and was selecting a seat, it looked as though only a handful of passengers had booked the flight.
“On the day of departure, I kept getting text notifications from American Airlines saying the flight would be full and would I like the free opportunity to change to alternate flights. Within two hours of the flight, I got a notification saying the flight was oversold, we’re looking for volunteers and we’ll pay $500 to switch your flight.”
Tomcich ended up not changing his flight. “I actually volunteered but they ended up not needing my seat,” he said. “The flight was full. And when I got back home, I checked and every remaining inbound flight from Dallas to Aspen was completely booked through the Fourth of July.”
Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines’ daily service to Aspen from Salt Lake City is being suspended. The last flight is set for July 7.
Delta plans to resume local service in the winter, but only from Atlanta and Los Angeles.
“At this point, those are the only two markets that are on the schedule,” Tomcich said. “Salt Lake is going to remain suspended. They don’t have enough CRJ-700 airplanes. They’ve gotten rid of all but three of them.”
There is still some demand for flights to Aspen from SLC, but the route was “the weakest performer of all the routes that Delta flew into Aspen. It made sense that if they are going to pick just two flights in the winter, they would take Atlanta and Los Angeles,” he said.
All three airlines’ expected phasing out of CRJ-700 aircraft in the next two to 10 years was the major impetus behind last year’s ASE Vision process, the county’s public effort to the Aspen airport’s redevelopment. The process resulted in a 20-1 vote in March, by what is considered as the primary ASE Vision committee (there were five in total), to widen the runway and make other improvements designed to accommodate the next generation of aircraft that will replace the CRJ-700.
“A year ago Delta had 18 CRJ-700s flying, through (third-party airline) SkyWest. By the end of November, they were down to 12 or 13. By the end of March they were down to six, and as of right now they are down to three. After July 7, when they have their final Salt Lake to Aspen flight, there are no more CRJ-700s on the schedule in or out of any Delta hub,” Tomcich said.
However, it’s likely, he said, that Delta will pull some CRJ-700s back into action if it resumes service to Aspen from Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Some of the airline’s CRJ-700s were put into storage, and others were removed, repainted and sold off to American Airlines, Tomcich said.
“It’s an older aircraft and there’s only one market across the country that really needs them and that’s Aspen,” he said. “It’s not as efficient as some of the other aircraft that they operate.”
No extra marketing
Eliza Voss, director of marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said the organization has not been doing any extra marketing to the Dallas-Fort Worth market in order to lure travelers to the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Given that Dallas is one of Aspen’s “feeder markets,” she said, the level of attention from ACRA has been about the same as it would be during a normal year.
When flights from other hubs such as Chicago and San Francisco come on line, the business group will devote attention to those as well, primarily through social media.
“We are primarily marketing in-state to the regional drive market,” Voss said. “I would say the increased demand is partially timing. This is typically when we would get busy anyway. Schools across the country are out now, so people either already had plans to travel or there is some pent-up demand.”
Late June is typically Aspen’s start of the “eight peak weeks of summer,” she said, so the tourism boost shouldn’t be too big of a surprise.
It appears that travelers want to come to Aspen anyway, even though numerous summer events, from the Food & Wine Classic to the Aspen Music Festival to Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Experience have been canceled.
The usual Fourth of July events also won’t happen, such as the annual fireworks show, Main Street parade and concert.
Voss said the Boogies 5K Run will be “virtual” this year. The chamber has ordered some red, white and blue bandannas for face coverings as well as some other “patriotic items” to distribute around town.