Airlines balk at county leases’ better service clause

A commercial aircraft departs Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Commercial airlines are poised to lock into separate three-year leases with Aspen-Pitkin County Airportbut without one clause in their agreements suggesting they speed up their service.

The lease agreements for American, Delta and United will go before the Pitkin County Board of Commissioners for final approval Wednesday, but absent from their contractual language is one line the airlines rejected: “Airline shall endeavor to provide sufficient personnel and staffing levels so as to not cause undue flight delays/cancellations.”

“It wasn’t a mandate,” airport director Dan Bartholomew said Monday. “It was more written as ‘please’ do something. … We knew it was a bit of a reach to get them to sign something very prescriptive. This was an attempt to at least try.”

In a memo to the BOCC in advance of this week’s vote on the three leases, Bartholomew wrote the airport will “continue to actively work with its airline partners to strive for operational efficiencies and enhanced customer experiences.”

American, Delta and United all served Aspen last ski season — Delta is taking this summer off — and were plagued by travel delays. Roughly one-third, or 32.4%, of incoming commercial flights to Aspen were delayed from January through April, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. During that period, 54.8% of the flights arrived on time. The remaining flights —  12.8% — were cancelled.

All told, the first four months saw 1,612 commercial flights arrive on time, 953 run late and 260 cancelled, according to the BTS.

“This past winter was especially bad,” said Basalt-based air travel consultant Bill Tomcich, noting large amounts of snowfall and a staff shortage at SkyWest, the feeder airline for American and United, as the primary culprits for the delays.

The summer, however, is trending differently, Tomcich said Monday.

“At least with the month of June and the first 11 days of July, the reliability with a thick schedule has been excellent,” he said. “Both American and United are close to 90% completion rates. That’s really good, but it’s not perfect.”

On-time arrival data was available through April from the BTS.

Travelers also have experienced delays after touching down in Aspen, said Bartholomew, noting that there was a backup of planes because of the high traffic volumes on the ground at the airport, meaning passengers could not disembark.

“We’ve had some complaints where aircraft will arrive and get stuck on the apron for a period of time,” he said, adding the ground delays are because there has not been enough airline staff to marshal and park aircraft.

The county, which operates the airport, has been leasing to the airlines on a month-to-month basis but is seeking the three-year leases, which include a two-year option.

Bartholomew’s memo to the BOCC said the lease agreements “can be advantageous when seeking investments from bondholders, and their rating agencies” as plans for the airport’s potential redevelopment of its passenger terminal and infrastructure.

“While Airports can legally operate without formal lease agreements, such agreements offer the sponsor greater assurances of both financial sustainability and space/asset management. Such an agreement offers longer term financial stability, better asset stewardship, and opportunities for ongoing and future facility capital investment,” the memo said.

If approved, the leases will take effect in Oct. 1. Lease payments in 2022 include $98.13 per square foot for use of interior terminal passenger facilities during the down seasons and $137.39 per square foot during the high season. Exterior rates are $32.71 during the offseason and $45.79 during the busy season, according to county documents.

Other fees are attached to airlines’ use of share spaces, along with landing fees that are computed at a rate ranging from $8.24 to $11.53 per thousand pounds of maximum allowable, gross-landing weight of an aircraft.

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