As commercial airlines limp through the pandemic, private traffic dominates 3-to-1 in Aspen
Knowing they can work remotely with a world of leisure and recreation outside their backdoor, new homeowners and affluent visitors looking to escape suburban and big-city life not only have ignited the Aspen-area real estate market, but also the business of private aviation.
That has been evident by the swelling sea of private aircraft Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. The pandemic has, in fact, generated such a demand for private flights to Sardy Field— given that more commercial flights were grounded than in the air during the outbreak’s peak — that two Aspen residents recently opened an operation at Rifle Garfield County Airport to accommodate spillover private aircraft (also known as general aviation) from the Aspen and Vail airports.
“With the influx of new part-time and full-time residents, the airports are full and there was no place to hangar more airplanes,” said Robert Holton, who with Jeff Posey opened Rifle Aviation at Rifle Garfield County Airport.
The pandemic last summer touched off a buying frenzy of Aspen area homes resulting in a sellers’ market that saw county the record $3 billion in total property transactions in 2020 (that figure includes agricultural and commercial as well as residential properties). People with the financial means to buy property in Aspen and surrounding areas also have the means to charter a private jet, something not lost on Aspen property broker Brittanie Rockhill. In her April newsletter, Rockhill announced a partnership she had formed with a charter service for guests or homebuyers to use.
“I have so many clients that come here and fly private,” Rockhill said, “and I try to be able to make it as seamless as possible for them.”
BOOMTIME FOR GENERAL AVIATION
General aviation actually saw a boost in the number of Aspen departures and arrivals in January and February over the same month in 2020 and 2019, following a trend going back to May 2020, according to a recent presentation by Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock on key economic indicators from the pandemic.
Yet it crippled the commercial airline industry in 2020 — 43 commercial airlines either suspended operations or went out of business, and the overall aviation industry reported a 65.9% drop in demand from 2019, with losses of $118 billion, according to McGill and Partners.
The effects were felt in 2020 at the Aspen airport, which had 4,314 commercial flights amounting to 188,873 passenger enplanements, a 40% decline from the 306,546 people in 2019, according to Pitkin County flight data. The number of arriving passengers plummeted 41.6% from 300,981 deplanements in 2019 to 175,608 in 2020.
For the first quarter of this year, public health restrictions have relaxed because of the widespread availability of vaccinations and a declining case count in the United States.
In turn, commercial airline activity has increased at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, where enplanements totaled 32,688 in March — the most since February 2020’s 41,607, according to Pitkin County airport data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The majority of flights to and from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport are general aviation — charter jets, business planes, anything noncommercial.
And even as commercial activity is starting to bounce back at the single-runway Sardy Field, general aviation has continued to increase its flight frequency over commercial carriers’ by a roughly three-to-one margin. That ratio is reflected in private flights accounting for 73.2% of the 4,390 flights to and from Sardy Field in January, compared to general aviation having 64.1% of the flight totals in January 2020, according to the FAA.
Private aviation also represented 73.5% of the 3,788 flights in February and 76.6% of the 5,126 in March — compared to 64.2% of the 4,173 flights in February 2020 and 62.4% of the 3,278 flights in March 2020, when the pandemic struck and ski areas closed mid-month.
Companies like Aspen-based evoJet offer direct charter flights to and from such markets as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Another one, AspenJet, flies semi-private charter flights all over the country on its 30-seaters. Aero flew its reconfigured 16-seat regional jet between Aspen and Van Nuys Airport from February through April. Summer flight on Aero, like a one-way set to Aspen from Los Angeles on Aero, if booked Friday for July 5, would have cost $1,600, for example.
Flights on FlyBlade to Aspen from Westchester County, New York, on a 14-seat Gulfstream G400 have been advertised starting at $3,500, for example.
Local airline consultant Bill Tomcich said there is a crossover between affluent commercial and private travelers.
“There’s always a niche between those who fly first-class commercial and those who have the wherewithal to charter their own private jets,” he said.
“Commercial airlines have been a little slow to react to the strengthening demand, and clearly we’re seeing a demand surge, and we’ve seen quite a surge for private air travel,” Tomcich said.
(Original post credit to Rick Carroll
For the Aspen Times Weekly) firstname.lastname@example.org