By Alex Hager, Aspen Public Radio
The pandemic took a heavy toll on Aspen’s tourism industry during the December holidays, usually the airport’s busiest time of year. In the two-week period around Christmas, the number of arriving passengers at Aspen-Pitkin County airport was down 53% from the year before.
During the same winter holiday period in 2019-2020, the airport recorded 28,000 arrivals. This year, that number was down to about 13,000.
The number of commercial flights was only down by 20%, but arriving aircraft are carrying fewer passengers than normal.
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“There’s still a lot of flights coming in, but they’re not full,” said Caroline Bonynge, the airport’s director of operations. “In years prior, we were seeing full flights, but now we’re seeing flights with half that capacity coming in.”
Bonynge said private flight traffic is coming back faster than commercial flights.
Aviation industry forecasts in the early days of the pandemic predicted it would be four-to-five years before air travel returned to normal levels, Bognyne said. But the recovery could take longer than that; aviation officials are being forced to adapt to what could be a “new normal” for the industry.
“I think COVID has gone on a little bit longer than anybody projected originally, and that’s changing the face of aviation,” she said.
Eliza Voss, vice president of marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, said Aspen’s airport is bouncing back faster than others across the country.
Occupancy data from the chamber reflects the drop in visitors. In December, occupancy rates at lodges were down 34% from the year prior in Aspen, and 16% in Snowmass. Those numbers are consistent with the reduction in tourist traffic over the summer – although the lodging industry saw an increase from the year before in the autumn months.
Voss said visitors are changing plans at the last minute, and many are delaying their vacation plans until September.
“We know that people are changing their planes and making last-minute plans with a trend of a 10-day mark for either cancellation or booking a new reservation,” Voss said. “Business levels have certainly been impacted because of COVID and travel restrictions.”
The chamber expects the downturn to continue through January. Tourist arrivals are expected to be “significantly lower” due to the absence of international visitors, who usually constitute a major percentage of January arrivals.
A new mandate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires international travelers to provide a negative COVID-19 test result as a condition of entering the U.S. This could further limit the number of tourists visiting Aspen from overseas in 2021.