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Fly from Aspen to Montrose for $30? Airlines are being allowed to cut small-airport service during coronavirus

With air travel contracting to 5% of pre-coronavirus levels, airlines now are allowed to cut some airports. Analysts project Colorado vacation towns aren’t on the chopping block.

A United Airlines flight from Denver arrives at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport in Gunnison on May 7, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The U.S. Department of Transportation has heard the pleas of airlines flying empty planes into regional airports and is allowing carriers to cut all flights into some cities and towns.  

The DOT on Tuesday issued a notice that airlines could remove 5% of the airports they serve, allowing relief for airlines that were obligated to maintain minimum levels of service as a condition of funding they received from the federal CARES Act. A growing number of airlines in recent weeks pleaded with the department to allow the suspension of service into hundreds of airports, citing near-zero demand for some regional locations, including Eagle, Aspen, Gunnison, Montrose and Steamboat Springs. 

But it’s unlikely airlines will select any of those Colorado airports to cut service, said Bill Tomcich, who works for the Airplanners consulting firm helping communities to secure air service. 

“If this had happened a month ago, they would have cut those flights,” Tomcich said. “Now we are starting to see stronger bookings in late June and July. So I don’t think any of these markets are in trouble for losing their air service for this summer. But beyond Oct. 1, when the CARES Act ends, who knows.”

A bulletin board in the empty baggage claim area at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport advises travelers of the actions Gunnison County is taking for the COVID-19 pandemic. Air travel is at about 5% of pre-coronavirus levels, leading airlines to ask for permission to suspend some flights. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Air travel has evaporated since the CARES Act rules for requiring airlines to provide a minimum level of service were installed in late March, dropping to 5% of pre-COVID-19 levels, DOT said in its notice Tuesday. The new notice gives airlines a chance to reduce service — and the financial burden of flying empty planes — while assuring all the airports previously served under CARES Act rules would remain connected to the country’s air network. 

“Every point covered will continue to receive service from at least one covered carrier,” reads the notice. 

Here’s how it works: Airlines can cut 5% of the airports it serves or at least five airports. For United, Delta and American Airlines, that means they can suspend service to 11 airports. Promising “to move expeditiously” on the plan, the DOT asked airlines to submit their list of exemption requests in order of priority May 18. 

The department said it would not allow airlines to cut flights into airports served by only one airline. If two airlines ask for exemptions from the same airport, the department will consider where the airlines ranked the airport in the requests. 

International airline consultant Mike Boyd, in his latest email blast to clients, said following the ever-changing airline schedule capacity “is like playing baseball with a greased football.”

“Whole new game, unknown rules, lots of schedule cancellations, and a lot of dumb policy from the Department of Transportation,” wrote Boyd, whose 35-year-old Boyd Group International in Evergreen works with airlines and airports. 

Boyd’s “Touch & Go” newsletter noted that airlines are being “forced to do all sorts of scheduling gymnastics to satisfy the DOT’s idiocy.” He pointed to American Airlines last week launching a five-times-a-week flight from Dallas to Eagle to Aspen to Montrose and back to Dallas “just to make the bureaucrats at the DOT happy.” 

MORE: Airlines flying empty planes to small Colorado airports plead for OK to cut service

The problem, Boyd said in an interview, is the DOT “has an incredibly outdated understanding of air transportation.” 

“They really think if Pueblo didn’t have two flights a day to Denver, they’d be cut off from the rest of the world. Or if planes aren’t flying into Montrose, we will never hear from anyone there again and they will all die,” Boyd said. “That thinking has permeated the department with the idea that every small community should have air service. That is horse manure.”

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Air planners in Montrose and Telluride agreed with American’ request to temporarily suspend service during the initial months of the pandemic. The department of transportation said American must continue to serve Montrose, hence the mountain-skipping flight from Dallas. 

“We are giving airlines bailout-type money and then making them waste it by flying into Montrose,” Boyd said. “Airlines are being forced to waste that money, even while the community says ‘Don’t make them waste it now because then they won’t have it in September when we are really going to need them.’ It’s just so stupid.”

Tomcich crunched some numbers to conclude that the Eagle to Aspen flight, at 29 miles, is the shortest commercial jet flight in the country. 

“Ever,” he said, noting it beats a regular 31-mile milk-run flight on Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago between Petersburg and Wrangell. (Tomcich, an admitted airline geek, said he’s booked a $29.75 one-way flight to Montrose from Aspen this week, “just for kicks.”) 

The department of transportation warned that any exemption from service will be “temporary relief” and does not end the airlines’ obligations for service under the CARES Act guidelines. 

“The department will continue to monitor the industry, including for signs of improved passenger volume during the phased reopening of the economy. We may amend, revoke, or alter this relief at any time, without hearing,” reads the notice signed by Joel Szabat, the DOT’s assistant secretary of aviation and international affairs. 


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