Colorado braces to wave of new winter flights as Americans flock to ‘snow and sun’ destinations
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Americans are getting ready to lace on their boots and snap on their skis this coronavirus pandemic winter.
Mountain communities in Colorado are gearing up for at least an equal number of visitors to the slopes, even as COVID infections continue to rise across the country. Airlines are doing their part by adding a new flights, including some big names not often associated with ski-destinations that are landing in the mountains for the first time.
“It’s all about snow and sun right now,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said during the airline’s third quarter earnings call on Oct. 22.
Southwest is making its first foray into seasonal mountain destination flying with new service to Montrose (MTJ) and Steamboat Springs (HDN) in Colorado this winter. JetBlue Airways is adding Montrose and expanding in Steamboat, and American Airlines is boosting service to a number of communities on the state’s Western Slope.
Dallas-based Southwest will connect both Montrose, which is near the resort town Telluride, and Steamboat to its Dallas Love Field (DAL) and Denver (DEN) bases beginning Dec. 19. It will offer up to four flights a day to both mountain towns through April.
American will resume all of its pre-pandemic flights to Aspen (ASE), Montrose, Steamboat and Vail (EGE) by December, according to Cirium schedules. It will also offer new seasonal flights between Charlotte (CLT) and Montrose.
And JetBlue will connect Montrose to Boston (BOS), Los Angeles (LAX) and New York JFK for the winter beginning Dec. 19. It will also add new nonstop service between Steamboat and JFK.
All of these new flights come against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the toll it has reaped on air travel. U.S. passenger numbers were down 61% year-over-year during the week ending Oct. 27, according to the latest data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A). Business travel remains all but grounded, with holidaygoers accounting for most of the greatly diminished numbers who are still getting on planes.
Fears of COVID continue to hamper travel. Many states have imposed restrictions on those traveling to or coming from areas with high positivity rates, moves that have slowed the recovery in places like New York, which has more-stringent restrictions than many other states.
Most U.S. airlines are betting on a multi-year recovery that will take until at least 2024 for travel to return to 2019 levels. But they also acknowledge that certain communities, especially those with outdoor options like beaches and mountains, are recovering faster than others. Multiple Colorado airports, as well as desert destination Palm Springs (PSP), are on track to see as many — if not more — flights this winter as they did in 2019.
“We’re trending well for winter,” said Matt Skinner, CEO of the Colorado Flights Alliance. The alliance is charged with bringing new flights to the Montrose and Telluride (TEX) airports.
The new American, JetBlue and Southwest flights will make up for the loss of Allegiant Air and Delta Air Lines this winter, he said. Both Allegiant and Delta have indefinitely suspended service to Montrose.
But even while Skinner is landing new service for Montrose, he is conscious of not adding “capacity for capacity’s sake.” The mountain communities have limited lodging options to begin with and, in response to the pandemic, many ski areas are considering visitor caps during peak periods.
The Colorado Tourism Office encourages all visitors to “know before you go” about local restrictions and COVID preparedness, communications manager Abby Leeper Gibson told TPG. The state is “open” to visitors, but masks are required in any public indoor space as well as on public transport.
The state is working towards a set of common coronavirus safety standards for mountain resorts to meet in order to “create common expectations” for visitors, The Colorado Sun reported in October.
“It’s naturally socially distanced with all the outdoor activities,” Bill Tomcich, an air service consultant for the Aspen and Gunnison (GUC) airports, told TPG. The biggest concern facing resorts is how to transport people from the “lot to the lift,” after which people can socially distance on the slopes.
In terms of airlines, Tomcich is working with American and United Airlines to space out flights in order to avoid crowding in passenger terminals this winter. He expects airlines to fly about the same level of service to Aspen this winter as last.
Flight numbers are due to be up by as much as 28% to Aspen, Montrose and Steamboat Springs in December compared to a year ago, according to Cirium schedules. However, airlines are revising schedules about a month out, with both Skinner and Tomcich warning that some flights are expected to fall out of the mix.
Delta stands in contrast with its competitors, having suspended flights to Aspen, Montrose and Steamboat Springs. Nearly every other major U.S. carrier is either resuming their 2019 schedules or adding new flights to these mountain communities this winter.
The three destinations were suspended amid the “ongoing impact of COVID-19 on demand,” said Drake Castañeda, a spokesperson for the Atlanta-based carrier. He added that Delta “looks forward” to resuming flights to the mountain communities when travel recovers.
Both Skinner and Tomcich seconded this, saying Delta has similarly assured them that it plans to return in the future.
“There is enough traffic,” Kelly at Southwest said in response to a question on the airline’s new seasonal flights in October. “It will support a few flights… it’s all about giving our current customers new options and also all about trying to win some new customers on these routes.”
American, JetBlue, Southwest and United will be testing that forecast: specifically, are enough travelers to fill as many or more planes this pandemic winter than last year. And if it does not work, then the flights will likely operate for just the one season and then go away.
Below are American, JetBlue and Southwest’s new routes to Colorado mountain communities this winter.
- Montrose – Charlotte: Saturday-service with an Airbus A319 from Dec. 19 to Apr. 3, 2021
- Montrose – Boston: Saturday and Sunday service with an Airbus A320 from Dec. 19 to March 27, 2021
- Montrose – Los Angeles: Saturday-service with an A320 from Dec. 19 to Feb. 20, 2021
- Montrose – New York JFK: Saturday-service with an A320 from Dec. 19 to Feb. 20, 2021
- Steamboat Springs – New York JFK: Saturday-service with an A320 from Dec. 19 to March 27, 2021
- Montrose – Dallas Love: Saturday and Sunday service with a Boeing 737 from Dec. 19 to April 5, 2021
- Montrose – Denver: Up to three daily flights with a 737 from Dec. 19 to April 5, 2021
- Steamboat Springs – Dallas Love: Saturday and Sunday service with a 737 from Dec. 19 to April 5, 2021
- Steamboat Springs – Denver: Up to three daily flights with a 737 from Dec. 19 to April 5, 2021
Featured image courtesy of Denver International Airport.
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