Frontier, Delta airlines ditching Aspen market
July 29, 2010
ASPEN – Aspen will be a one-airline resort this winter. Frontier Airlines will discontinue its service at the end of September, informing local employees of the decision Wednesday morning, and Delta confirmed what resort officials already knew – that it won’t be back for the coming ski season.
Frontier, which launched its Aspen service in 2008, offering daily connections to Denver, found it to be a profitable market. Its planes were 64 percent full last winter, according to Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the resort’s liaison to the airline industry.
But, when Republic Airways acquired Frontier last spring and announced it would phase out the fleet of Bombardier Q400s that Frontier flies into regional markets, including Aspen, future service was thrown up in the air.
“They definitely tried their best to continue service into this market,” Tomcich said. “In the end, they just ran out of time and out of options.”
Frontier will fly the Q400 into the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport through Sept. 30.
Delta, which offered one connection a day in the winter to both Salt Lake City and Atlanta, struggled last ski season, according to Tomcich.
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“In addition to Aspen, they’re getting rid of all seasonal ski flights out of Salt Lake,” Tomcich said.
Tomcich said Delta was asked if it would reconsider its plans when Frontier’s challenges came to light last week, but Delta confirmed Wednesday the airline will not resume local service this winter.
Delta had not sold any seats into Aspen for the coming winter, but Frontier did, fueling hope that the airline would find a way to continue serving the resort. Most passengers who have purchased Frontier tickets will be accommodated on United, though that may not be possible on a few peak days during the holidays. Individuals who are left without a seat will be offered a full refund, Tomcich said.
This winter will be the first time since 1994-95 that Aspen will be served by just one airline. The number of seats coming into Aspen will drop, and airfares, which declined noticeably when Frontier brought head-to-head competition into the market, are likely to rise.
Altogether, United, Frontier and Delta flew 196,000 seats into Aspen last winter; the coming winter will bring 140,000 seats unless United increases its service, which is possible, Tomcich said.
Scheduled winter service on United Express includes 12 daily connections to Denver, along with three each from both Chicago and Los Angeles, and one daily from San Francisco. That’s still more seats than Aspen saw for the 2006-07 ski season, when United, Delta and America West served the resort, Tomcich noted. That season was “a good one for this resort overall,” he said.
Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Marketing Jeanne Mackowski declined to speculate on how the loss of Frontier service would affect business next ski season.
“I think that we’re disappointed that Frontier is pulling out of the market but we have a strong partner in United,” she said.
The Skico’s advertising campaign last season mostly touted direct flights from major markets like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, which were operated by United.
However, Skico officials cited the addition of service by Frontier starting in the winter of 2008-09 as a distinct competitive advantage for Aspen-Snowmass. The competition, plus the state of the economy, created the most competitive fares in years.
“We really had it good for awhile,” said Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland. “It’s unfortunate, but we still have air service two miles from town.
“If the economy comes back, maybe Frontier comes back.”
The planned lengthening of the airport runway by 1,000 feet could play a more significant role than the economy in enticing Frontier or Delta back, according to Tomcich. Pitkin County recently approved the project.
Weight restrictions, which would ease with a longer runway, affected Delta’s Aspen-to-Atlanta flight, forcing the airline to leave seats empty to get it off the ground with enough fuel to reach Atlanta.
Frontier, which looked at three different Embraer aircraft with the hope of using one to serve Aspen, concluded it wouldn’t be possible. It has operational issues that may be helped with a longer runway, according to Tomcich.
At one point, Northwest looked at the Embraer 175 to serve Aspen and concluded it could only put people in 26 seats for a flight from Aspen to Minneapolis, given the weight restrictions on the existing runway, Tomcich said.
Aspen was a profitable market for Frontier during the winter using the turboprop Q400, said spokeswoman Lindsey Purves, though the airline served Aspen year-round.
Weight restrictions, however, meant Frontier couldn’t fill planes flying out of Aspen using the Embraer fleet, she said.
“If we can’t fill the plane then we can’t be profitable,” she said.
Frontier did recently announce it would offer service to Steamboat Springs this winter using the Embraer 190, while Delta intends to serve Montrose-Telluride via an Atlanta connection. Telluride is offering revenue guarantees to Delta.
Aspen’s airport runway project depends on the release of federal monies that will pay for 95 percent of the estimated $17.5 million project. If that money becomes available, utility work could begin this fall and construction in the spring. The runway extension could be finished by next fall in a best-case scenario, said Jim Elwood, airport director.
Whether that will make the Embraer feasible for Aspen is uncertain, he said.
“We don’t have definitive data,” Elwood said. “We hope we will be able to get some of the analysis that Frontier did. I’m not sure Frontier is willing to share that.”
United Express, operated by SkyWest, uses the CRJ-700 jet, including a number of new NexGen versions of the aircraft, for its Aspen service.
– Reporter Scott Condon contributed to this report.