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Colorado’s mountain airports are thriving as rural air service struggles

United Airlines Flight 5627 arrives at the Montrose Regional Airport in Montrose on Aug. 1. (William Woody/Special to The Colorado Sun)
Colorado’s airports in Aspen, Durango, Eagle County, Gunnison, Hayden and Montrose set records in 2021 and are staying busy in 2022

Colorado’s mountain-town airports are busier than ever despite airlines limping through a pilot shortage and slashing service to smaller communities.

The number of passengers flying in and out of Aspen, Durango, Eagle County, Gunnison, Hayden and Montrose in 2022 is on a record-setting pace, marking a rural airport strength that does not reflect national trends.

“While communities that are not ski or resort destinations are struggling to maintain a minimum level of service, the mountain airports are doing pretty well,” said Bill Tomcich, who helps high country communities negotiate for air service.

Airlines are cutting service to regional airports across the country as an ongoing shortage of pilots and other workers and soaring fuel prices hinders the industry’s recovery from the pandemic shutdown.

Last fall, United announced it was dropping 11 small cities from its hubs in Chicago, Denver and Houston. Delta last year pulled out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Cody, Wyoming, as well as Grand Junction. American also cut service to four U.S. cities and ended four routes.

In March, SkyWest Airlines told the federal Department of Transportation it wanted to cut service to 29 cities, citing a shortage of pilots. The airline’s proposed cuts for routes it operates for United Airlines includes service to Pueblo and Alamosa.

SkyWest must find replacement airlines to cover that service, which is required under the federal Essential Air Service program – or EAS – which subsidizes airlines to provide service to about 110 smaller communities around the country. Colorado has three EAS airports, in Alamosa, Cortez and Pueblo.

Colorado’s ski-town airports – Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum, Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden, Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport and Montrose Regional Airport – have spent decades working with airlines to provide direct flights for skiers from primary markets like Southern California, Texas, New York and Chicago. Those negotiations – sometimes involving minimum-revenue programs that have communities guaranteeing airlines a certain level of revenue, regardless of whether seats are filled – have helped airlines trust remote regions to lure passengers.

Mount Sneffels at 14,158 feet and the northern San Juan Mountains tower over the Montrose Regional Airport and its multimillion-dollar terminal expansion currently under construction at the airport in Montrose on Aug. 1. (William Woody/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Not many small towns in the country have several direct flights from big cities every day.

“Our service, by and large, across these airports in the Rockies has remained pretty much intact. … Once we got through the pandemic and leisure travel started to recover, we were in a great position to maintain our air service,” said Matt Skinner, whose Colorado Flights Alliance works with Western Slope governments, businesses and communities to prioritize consistent air service.

Last year was a big year for Colorado’s five mountain airports, with Hayden and Montrose logging a record number of passengers and Eagle and Gunnison airports hosting the most since the previous peak in 2007. All five airports in 2022 are pacing a bit behind last year, but winter schedules, while still taking shape, indicate traffic through the 2022-23 winter will mirror pre-pandemic numbers. (Earlier this month American Airlines announced new direct flights between Austin and Eagle County. American flew between Aspen and Austin last winter and those flights were popular, Tomcich said.)

“We really have to credit the airlines for sticking with us. They have been great partners through the ups and downs of the pandemic,” Skinner said. “That sounds pitch-y, but really they have been super flexible in a really uncertain time.”

A “huge snapback in resurgent demand” in the last half of 2021 drove record traffic to Durango – La Plata County Airport in 2021, said Tony Vicari, the airport’s aviation director.

Things have slowed down this year as both American and United have scaled back the frequency of daily flights into Durango, but planes are full, Vicari said.

“We are seeing continued strong demand but we are fighting the continued challenge on the supply side from an airline perspective,” he said.

Like other mountain airports, locals are flying and keeping planes full.

“These airports are attractive to the kinds of workers who want the amenities of a Colorado mountain lifestyle but still need access to reliable air service,” Vicari said. “So it’s a symbiotic relationship. Having this kind off air service is a key part of their decision to relocate here and strong local use of these regional airports really helps insulate us from other significant impacts and swings in consumer demand.”

A decade ago, mountain communities and airlines struggled with the one-way flow of traffic. Lots of people want to get to ski towns on a Friday night and not so many want to leave. So there were packed flights heading in but not-so-packed on the way back the same day.

That’s changing as more work-from-anywhere residents settle in mountain towns. The influx of new residents has strained the real estate market, but it’s been good for airlines.

“We are definitely seeing more balance in demand for inbound and outbound travel,” Tomcich said. “When you have a better balance of locals traveling outbound and travelers coming in, that’s what really makes the service sustainable.”