Mountain Resort Airports: Tough Challenges at High-Altitude Runways
November 22, 2013
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  • The is the second in a series on mountain resort airports. Read the Nov. 23 print edition for the final installment, which examines the various funding models at resort airports, as well as future flight-service challenges.

    Linda Erickson lives in Edwards and always uses Denver International Airport. She’s a frequent business traveler but typically can’t justify using the Eagle County Regional Airport.

    “I can take (a Colorado Mountain Express van) to Denver and get to my destination in half the time I would spend flying all over the place making multiple connections,” she said. “Flights out of Eagle are outrageously priced. My preference would certainly be to fly out of Eagle if those two points could be resolved.”

    Unfortunately for Erickson and many other frequent mountain travelers, the reasons for her frustrations can’t be easily resolved. Mountain airports are configured around many obstacles, including mountainous terrain and complex high-altitude flying conditions.

    Mountain airports face challenging weather patterns, including temperature, precipitation, humidity and wind. According to the 2010 Colorado Mountain Airport Study, even moderate temperatures in the summer can cause high density altitude, which decreases aircraft lift and engine performance. Airports are already constrained because of mountainous terrain, so a decrease in engine performance is a serious problem, according to the report.

    ‘Complete chaos’

    Aviation consultant Kent Myers could talk about the technical restrictions at mountain airports for hours, maybe even days.

    When airplanes depart they have to be able to perform to a Federal Aviation Administration standard known as an engine-out maneuver, he said. It’s a technique pilots need to know in case of an engine failure. Doing such a maneuver over any obstacle — especially mountains — is not wise.

    “When the front wheel lifts off, if you blow the engine at that time, you have to turn around and land with one engine,” Myers said. “Because of obstructions of Red Table Mountain (near the Eagle County airport), you can’t do that maneuver, but you can do it in Aspen.”

    The result is that Aspen can have a regional jet fly outbound with a limited weight restriction, but the Eagle County airport needs a more powerful, larger gauge aircraft, Myers said.

    In Aspen, space is also limited. There’s one runway, just like at the Eagle County airport, but in Aspen there’s a 95-foot wingspan restriction. That limits the type of aircraft Aspen can accommodate.

    “The restrictions on the wingspan here and restrictions on max gross landing weight — you’ll never see a (Boeing) 757 or an Airbus here,” said Bill Tomcich, president of Stay Aspen Snowmass and the community representative who deals with the airlines.

    There is a demand for use by larger wingspan aircraft, but that would require relocation of the parallel taxiway and aprons, reducing aircraft parking by as much as half, according to the Colorado Mountain Airport Study Update technical report in 2010.

    Shenna Johnston, of Glenwood Springs, knows how all the high altitude science affects her. She tries to fly out of the Aspen airport when she can because she said she can often find cheaper flights there than out of Eagle County. But that choice often has its consequences.

    “Aspen is tricky during the winter months because if there’s a snow storm, that shuts down the airport. You have no choice but to drive to Denver in hopes of scoring a standby flight. It’s complete chaos,” she said. “I’ve done the drive to Denver with 2 feet of snow on Vail Pass and 18-wheelers jack-knifed all over the pass.”

    For some travelers, it’s simple math. If a flight into the Eagle County Airport is within $150 of the fare into Denver, Debbie Blount chooses Eagle.

    “I watch the fares regularly and try to book when I see the price drop,” she said. “Unfortunately during shoulder seasons neither American or Delta are offering service. I would love to see a player such as AirTran/Southwest try service into EGE, even if it was just seasonally so we could have a little competition and see some more reasonable pricing.”

    A Southwest spokesman said the airline won’t play in seasonal markets, so that option is out — at least for now. It doesn’t mean the EGE Air Alliance and other groups won’t continue to court the airline, though.

    Less seats

    The Boeing 757 has been a workhorse for the Eagle County Airport, but most airlines are grounding them because they’re older planes and aren’t very fuel-efficient. The planes are being replaced with Airbus 319s — great for fuel efficiency, but there’s roughly 60 less seats than on a 757.

    “The most current negative impact on the Eagle Airport, as well as other resort communities, is the 757 retirement,” Myers said. “The available seats are shrinking not because it’s anybody’s fault, it’s because of what’s happening with the aircraft. Does it mean we should serve Chicago twice a day? That’s a pretty big leap.”

    The Airbus that can fly into the Eagle County Airport still has about 50 more seats than the largest commercial aircraft flying into Aspen, though. Phillips said the airport estimates that roughly 20 percent of Eagle County Airport winter traffic is heading to Aspen. Aspen/Pitkin County Airport Aviation Director Jim Elwood thinks the number is more like 10 percent.

    “(Aspen is) bringing 66-passenger planes in. A backup plan for someone might be to come here (if seats to Aspen are sold out),” EGE Air Alliance board member Gabe Shalley said.

    Aspen and Eagle both serve many of the same destination markets, but Eagle can fly in longer-distance flights because it can accommodate larger aircraft. Aspen’s farthest market this winter is Atlanta, while Eagle will have nonstop service from farther markets such as Miami, Newark, New York City and Toronto. The Toronto flight, which clears customs in Canada before departure and then again in Canada upon return, will be the only direct international flight this winter into a Colorado mountain resort airport.

    In addition to changes in fleets, the airline industry’s consolidation to just four dominant domestic carriers ­— which account for more than 80 percent of the total market — is causing a need for smaller airports to recreate relationships with airlines, said Yampa Valley Airport Manager David Ruppel. Air service at resort airports is all about relationships with the airlines, he said.

    “When those connections change, it just makes it that much more challenging to get the best deal,” he said.

    The importance of being able to strike the right deals with airlines can’t be understated. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport generates $841.1 million in economic output each year, and the Eagle County Regional Airport generates $635.9 million, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s 2013 Economic Impact Study for Colorado Airports.

    You can debate the methodology, Aspen Aviation Director Jim Elwood said, but either way it’s an interesting analysis that says a lot about the economic importance of airports.

    Aspen and Eagle are the top economic generators behind Denver International Airport and Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, respectively, of commerical service airports in the state. That performance would be impossible without economic incentives or revenue guarantees for air service, which are made possible through relationships between resort airports and the airlines.

    “The airport is like a utility for people, like turning the lights on. You go to the airport and the planes are there,” Eagle County Regional Airport Aviation Director Greg Phillips said. “It’s getting to the point where it’s not like that anymore. You’ve got to be responsive, you’ve got to be actively working to promote and build air service, particularly in smaller communities like this where we don’t have large native populations.”