Growing day-skier traffic to rival resorts along Interstate 70 could help spur more flights and perhaps even international customs into the Eagle County Regional Airport, which would greatly improve access to Aspen.
Massive traffic jams between Vail and Denver last winter have prompted a number of moves by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to try to ease weekend skier-traffic gridlock, but Vail Mayor Andy Daly says even more needs to be done.
State lawmaker Diane Mitsch Bush is weighing legislation that contemplates limiting commercial truck traffic during peak periods and could include traction checks and potential fines for private vehicles with inadequate snow tires or no chains.
Daly says trips of up to nine hours on the 100-mile stretch between Denver and Vail will send destination skiers to other states with better access, such as Utah, and put more of a premium on improving air access directly into mountain airports such as Eagle.
“What it really does is it puts a hell of a lot more pressure and value on us getting more flights, more frequency and more cities out of Eagle, because from the [Eagle County Regional Airport] to Vail is only 35 minutes, and that is extraordinarily competitive,” Daly said. “But it’s going to take some more flights to move the needle.”
For the 2014-15 ski season four major airlines – Air Canada, American, Delta and United – offer nonstop flights from 11 cities to and from the Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE), including Newark and JFK in the New York City area, Houston and Dallas in Texas, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Toronto (Eagle’s first international flight).
“Right now I think about 35 percent of our [destination] skiers are coming through Vail-Eagle [County Airport], but more and more are going to be looking for it based on I-70,” Daly said.
According to Stay Aspen-Snowmass, “Often we find the best airfares into Aspen, Colorado, via [Eagle County Regional],” which is only about 70 miles from Aspen. “Stay Aspen Snowmass can provide you with ground transportation from Eagle County Regional Airport to ensure seamless connections for your trip to Aspen Snowmass.”
Stay Aspen-Snowmass President Bill Tomcich recently told the Aspen Times that the number of commercial airline seats into Aspen will be higher than Eagle County this coming ski season, as the number of seats into Eagle has declined steadily over the past eight years. Eagle, however, is on the rise again.
Greg Phillips, aviation director at the Eagle County Airport, says the goal is to grow the number of passengers on existing flights and to possibly add more cities for next ski season. The Eagle airport is also studying the financial feasibility of adding international customs for more direct flights from other countries such as Mexico. He acknowledges the growing importance of the Latin American market to Colorado’s ski industry.
“We are hugely interested in encouraging the success of Latin American markets and helping our travelers get here,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s through direct flights or continuing to support our existing ports of entry and direct flights through Houston, Miami, Los Angeles or JFK, we’re certainly going to do everything we can to make that successful.”
More flights, of course, would mean more competition and lower airfares from key U.S., Latin American and European cities. On average, it costs about $230 more to fly in and out of Eagle versus DIA last year, Phillips says. But he’s increasingly seeing people willing to pay that premium to avoid I-70.
“Anecdotally, I hear from people who say I would much rather fly into Eagle and I’m willing to pay more to be able to avoid the time, the hassle, the drive, the parking, the potential impacts on the road from the drive itself to be able to fly directly in here and just take a quick shuttle up-valley,” Phillips said.
Of course, any visitors bound for Aspen can avoid two high mountains passes (Vail Pass and the Eisenhower Tunnel) by flying into Eagle instead of DIA, but they still have to navigate Glenwood Canyon and Highway 82 for 70 miles into Aspen.
The far more direct route is flying into Aspen Colorado Sardy Field (ASE), just three miles from Aspen and six miles from Snowmass. However, the Aspen airport is more expensive and has limitations on the size of aircraft and timing restrictions on when they can fly. Those constraints sometimes make Eagle or even Grand Junction a better option.
Phillips says the Eagle airport saw a pre-recession peak of 232,000 enplanements in 2007, which dipped to about 167,000 last year. But he feels that number has bottomed out and demand will continue to increase, allowing for more direct flights to more destinations in the future.