GYPSUM — The rental cars are stacked bumper-to-bumper. Hundreds of them wedged into two parking lots.
The rest of the airport lots are deserted. Fewer than two dozen cars are scattered across the sprawling asphalt outside the Eagle County Regional Airport. Inside the recently expanded terminal, employees easily outnumber travelers as giant televisions flicker with tourist-tempting videos of local whitewater, ski runs and bike trails.
There is no one in the TSA line. That’s not unusual for the Eagle County airport.
But the mountain-skipping route of the Bombardier CRJ700 on the tarmac, which just landed from Dallas, is unique.
The flight from Eagle County to Aspen, at 29 miles, is the shortest commercial jet flight in the country. At $29 a ticket ($45 with fees and taxes) it’s hardly a moneymaker for American Airlines. But the temporary flight keeps the airline in good graces with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which requires airlines to maintain minimum levels of service into regional airports as part of a $58 billion airline coronavirus relief package included in the government’s late March CARES Act.
In the past month, the DOT has allowed some airlines to suspend service after showing the agency how fleets of empty planes are crossing the country just to meet the CARES Act requirements. American Airlines did not win that exemption, so five days a week Flight 2986 soars from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport to Eagle, then Aspen and Montrose before returning to Dallas.
A couple of people get off the plane in Gypsum and about six passengers board, with the gate attendant rolling through the boarding sequence of Group 1 to Group 8 in less than 10 seconds. There are maybe 21 people aboard the 17-row, 64-seat jet. The scattered array of passengers are part of a new pandemic-orchestrated seating plan that keeps everyone safely distanced.
“Welcome to our continuing mountain town tour,” the pilot says over the intercom as passengers settle.
He’s the leader of a SkyWest flight crew that operates flights on behalf of American Airlines. All of them are “Aspen certified.” This means they have been specifically trained for this next leg, which threads a narrow shot up the Roaring Fork Valley into Aspen’s Sardy Field.
Feels like post-9/11 flying
Flight 2986 left Dallas at 10:20 a.m. on Memorial Day and landed at 11:44 a.m. at the Eagle airport.
As passengers click in for the trip to Aspen, they notice an updated spiel from flight attendants. It’s reminiscent of the shift following 9/11, when air passengers heard a long list of new rules that now hardly raise eyebrows. Keep your mask on. Cover your sneeze. Wash your hands. There’s no congregating around the bathroom. No sitting in the back rows. Be nice to people who aren’t wearing masks because maybe they have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing one. Don’t flush your mask down the toilet.
At 12:11 p.m., the pilot tells his crew they are “No. 1 for takeoff.” (The only other commercial flight for the day at Eagle County Regional — United 5907 from Denver — is due in about a half hour.)
At precisely 12:14, the CRJ 700’s wheels lift off the runway and the pilot climbs west toward the Colorado River. He banks north up the river for a few seconds before heading back east toward the airport. On seven previous 2986 flights since May 16, the Eagle-to-Aspen pilot pushed east almost 30 miles — close to the slopes of Vail — before turning south toward Aspen. But this time, he is barely over Eagle when he turns south.
The jet follows Brush Creek to the giant ranch where St. Louis oilman Fred Kummers spent 25 years and $100 million trying to build a Vail-like ski area he called Adam’s Rib. A touch west and the plane is flying over Red Table Mountain and over the charred remains of the Lake Christine Fire above Basalt. By 12:18, the jet is cruising southwest at 455 mph at 15,750 feet, according to flight tracking info at flightaware.com. By 12:21, the pilot begins his descent and throttles back to 259 mph.
Snowmass Mountain, Capitol Peak and Maroon Peak to the west have a fresh coat of snow from the storm Sunday night. Eleven minutes after takeoff, the jet is at 11,000 feet, and soon there are trophy homes on the ridges above the plane.
“Welcome to Aspen,” the flight attendant says as the wheels touch down. “The time is 12:29.”
The shortest commercial jet flight in the country — scheduled for 30 minutes of airtime — took 14 minutes, 37 seconds on Memorial Day. (The previous six times SkyWest flew that leg of Flight 2986 from Eagle to Aspen, the flight time ranged from 27 minutes to 56 minutes.)
“That had to be a record. I think he took a shortcut somewhere,” says Bill Tomcich, an Aspen-based consultant who works with Colorado’s resort communities and airlines to arrange flights.
A hop, a bus, and a bike ride home
Tomcich has flown every commercial route into and out of his hometown airport in Aspen, and he made sure to catch a ride on the Eagle to Aspen hop. He drove to Eagle and took a bus from the Aspen airport to Carbondale and then pedaled his bike 42 miles through Glenwood Canyon back to the Eagle County airport.
About a dozen passengers disembark in Aspen, where 15 large private jets are neatly parked on the tarmac and Delta’s flight from Salt Lake City just landed.
Michael Hsun, after spending a long weekend visiting Colorado’s national parks and national monuments, stayed on the plane, continuing on to Montrose and Dallas-Fort Worth. The Philadelphia resident had tried the same flight the week before, but a problem with the jet’s spoilers prevented a landing in Aspen and his flight from Eagle diverted to Colorado Springs. A maintenance crew fixed the plane, but the few Aspen-bound passengers chose to drive so the flight skipped Aspen and landed in Montrose.
“Such a cool flight to take,” Hsun says. ”It took me two weeks to get it but it was worth it.”
Hsun, like Tomcich, was taking the opportunity to gather frequent flier miles and a very rare flight experience.
“I think we lucked out. A week before, we spent 20 minutes doing a big rectangular pattern before we even turned south,” Hsun says. “I think it was a combination of the weather and those specially trained pilots. I think they executed it so beautifully, don’t you think?”
It’s not likely the Eagle to Aspen flight will last much longer. Last week the Department of Transportation granted American Airlines’ request for an exemption to cut the temporary DFW-EGE-ASE-MTJ-DFW flight the airline calls “the mountain hopper.”
The agency opened the exemption approval up for public comment and a final decision is due Thursday. If finalized, American’s flight 2986 on May 28 may be the last.
But American, Delta and United are ramping up more consistent summer service into Colorado’s resort airports in the coming weeks as travelers return to the air.
American will begin daily flights into Eagle County from Dallas-Fort Worth in June, and United has a flight into Eagle County from Chicago starting this summer. Aspen has many flights on the books this summer, including ones connecting the Roaring Fork Valley with Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston and Denver.
Outside the Aspen airport, Dave Gordon is standing beside his High Mountain Taxi van. The door is open so he can hear his radio for any calls. It’s not cackling. And no one is needing a ride.
On a typical Memorial Day, Gordon would be cruising up and down the valley alongside 11 other High Mountain Taxi drivers. Today there are two drivers working.
“It’s been pretty slow,” Gordon says. “Pretty slow. But they’re coming. They always do.”