On-demand and chartered private flights known as air taxis have gained popularity since the pandemic at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport (ASE), surpassing operations from commercial carriers at an airfield where general aviation and air taxis make up 80% of the flights. Also, general aviation operations in 2021 reached their highest level since 2008. 

Pitkin County commissioners on July 12 authorized the airport’s aviation demand forecast, which projects enplanement and aircraft fleet trends for the next 20 years, for submission to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA still needs to approve the forecast — a prerequisite for the agency to help finance a potential redevelopment of the airfield to increase the separation between the runway and the taxiway from the current 320 feet to 400 feet, which is the FAA standardized width for an Airport Design Group III facility.

Widening the separation between the runway and taxiway would expand the airport’s current wingspan limit to 118 feet from 95 feet, opening the door to larger aircraft. The conversation was initiated about 10 years ago with concerns about the lifespan and future of CRJ-700 — the only aircraft used by commercial air carriers serving Aspen — but commercial flights represent only 20% of ASE’s operations. The remaining 80% are divided among general aviation, which includes privately operated planes, business jets and recreational flights, and air taxis, which are aircraft with seating limited to 60 and carrying cargo or passengers for hire or compensation. This includes flight services provided by private-jet charter and fractional-jet ownership companies.  

An analysis by Aspen Journalism using data from the FAA and Vector — which is the county’s contractor that handles airport landing fees — as well as data from the flight-tracking website Flightaware for ASE for 2021 and 2022 provides insight into the general aviation and air taxi sector, the average age of those aircraft, and their origins and destinations.

It’s worth noting that the FAA and Vector don’t use the same technique for data recording. The FAA records takeoffs and landings through the tower, while Vector uses a camera that reads the tail number of each aircraft about to take off. Flightaware data indicates origin and destination and en-route time in addition to the model of the aircraft.

The FAA’s Operations Network (OPSNET) recorded 102,952 operations at ASE in 2021-22. Eighty-nine percent of those were itinerant flights, which are those arriving or departing the airport area. The FAA recorded 11,320 recreational flights — which are local general aviation that takes off and then returns to ASE — during those two years.

Forty-two percent of the approximately 91,000 itinerant operations in 2021-22 were general aviation and 34% were air taxis. At ASE, most of the air taxis were operated by NetJets or Flexjet, which offer fractional-ownership shares in private business jets and other flight-service options. Meanwhile, air carriers — commercial flights operated by American and United airlines and seasonally by Delta Air Lines — represented less than one-fourth of the airport’s operations.

Air taxi service on the rise at ASE

Due to their for-hire aspect, air taxis are considered commercial flights by the FAA. But because they tend to use smaller aircraft and fly out of the fixed-based operator (FBO) terminal instead of the commercial terminal, they are often grouped together with general aviation.

Tyson Weihs, a local pilot and co-founder of ForeFlight, a flight software company, said that many aircraft may fly as an air taxi one day and as general aviation the next, making it difficult to differentiate between the two types of operations. 

A spokesperson for Atlantic Aviation, which runs Aspen’s FBO and is in negotiations with Pitkin County for a long-term contract to manage the facility, told Aspen Journalism that it does not distinguish between air taxi and general aviation operations.

The 2023 aviation demand forecast, which is part of the larger airport layout plan update required by the FAA in order to fund improvements, said general aviation operations at ASE have been dropping since 2000, from 33,748 operations in 2000 to 24,043 in 2022. However,  they saw a rebound during the pandemic to 25,847 operations in 2021. Meanwhile, air taxi operations have been rising, from 7,199 in 2000 to 15,048 in 2022. 

“To some degree, it could be the advent of technology that makes it easier for people to share rides,” said local air service consultant Bill Tomcich, commenting on the growth in air-taxi flights. He added that crowdsourcing technology allows people to share trips on private jets. “It is both a better use of the economics and it’s also better for the environment [as they] share a private jet trip. [It lowers] the emissions for passengers.”

The report mentions that the growth trend for air taxi service at ASE has “often moved in the opposite direction of air carrier operations.” Air taxis gained popularity after 9/11 and when America West Airlines and Northwest Airlines ceased operations at ASE in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Operations at ASE then declined from 2008 to 2012 when Frontier Airlines had a route between Aspen and Denver. From 2013 to 2019, air taxi operations recorded steady growth and surged during the pandemic when regular commercial service was scaled back. 

If air taxi and general aviation flights are grouped together, their operations have been steady overall in the past 20 years at ASE.

NetJets, which did not respond to a request for comment, is Aspen’s biggest air taxi operator, with 3,958 recorded departures from the airport in 2021-22 out of 33,140 general aviation and air taxi departures, according to the Vector data. Flexjet is second, with 2,085 such departures.

The top five private planes flying to Aspen

NetJets’ primary aircraft model is the Cessna Citation Sovereign, which was used for about 40% of the 2021-2022 NetJets’ departures at ASE. The Ohio-based company’s average aircraft age is about eight years, while the average age of all general aviation and air taxi aircraft that operated at ASE in 2021-22 is about 16 years, according to Aspen Journalism’s analysis of ASE operation data, which uses FAA registration numbers and aircraft information in the FAA registry. Data shows that 188 different types of aircraft flew in and out Aspen as general aviation or air taxi in 2021-22. The years that these planes were built range from 1947 to 2022. It should be noted that some aircraft registrations are incomplete and that foreign-based aircraft are not included in this average.

The most-used general aviation and air taxi aircraft in 2021 and 2022 at ASE was the midsize jet Bombardier Challenger 300, with nearly 5,000 operations. Twenty-nine percent of those flights were operated by NetJets and 20% by FlexJet. According to FlightAware, the Embraer Phenom 300 was the second-most-popular general aviation/air taxi aircraft at ASE, with about 4,000 operations; half of those were through either NetJets or FlexJet, according to Vector’s data, which provides information about operators. Next came the long-range business jet Gulfstream IV, with about 3,750 operations, followed by the business jet Cessna Excel and the small turboprop aircraft Pilatus PC-12, each with more than 3,000 operations, according to Flightaware. Meanwhile, the CRJ-700, the only commercial aircraft operating at ASE, recorded about 22,750 operations during those two years.

The most-used general aviation and air taxi aircraft in 2021 and 2022 at ASE was the midsize jet Bombardier Challenger 300 with nearly 5,000 operations. Twenty-nine percent of those flights were operated by NetJets and 20% by FlexJet. The average manufacturing year for the Bombardier Challenger 300 is 2012, ranging from 2003 to 2022. This photographed aircraft is one of the oldest Bombardier Challenger 300s operating at ASE — a 2004 model. Credit: Photo by Oliver Semple

During 2021-22, about 1,920 operations were recorded for the Gulfstream V, a class of aircraft that includes the Gulfstream G550 — the current “critical aircraft,” or the largest general aviation or air taxi aircraft with at least 500 operations flying annually at ASE. According to the Vector data, which provides the tail number of each aircraft and gives further details about the model, the 94-foot wingspan G550 aircraft recorded 469 departures (about 940 operations) during those two years, including 260 departures (about 520 operations) in 2022.

The average manufacturing year for the Bombardier Challenger 300 is 2012, ranging from 2003 to 2022; the average year for the Embraer Phenom 300 is 2016, ranging from 2010 to 2022. The Cessna Excel and the Gulfstream IV are older, with an average year of manufacture of 2006 and 2002, respectively — the oldest being from 1987.

“Airlines … buy a jet, and they’ll stick with it for 15 or 20 years until it becomes … economically not viable for them,” said ASE Director Dan Bartholomew. “It doesn’t seem to happen as much on the general aviation side. That’s hard to tell. I mean I’ve seen people that’ll turn over a jet annually, but some people hold on to it longer.”

Also of note, in 2021-22, ASE recorded 31 general aviation operations from a Boeing 737-500, a smaller version of the common commercial airliner. All these flights were from one aircraft — a 1998 Boeing 737-500 registered under a Texas-based oil and gas company, Montex Drilling Co. That plane is able to land in Aspen with its 95-foot wingspan. Opposition to airport expansion is animated, in part, by concern that larger commercial 737s that are not allowed at ASE under current wingspan restrictions could fly here if the runway-taxiway separation is increased.

The 94-foot wingspan Gulfstream G550 aircraft recorded 469 departures (or about 940 operations) in 2021-2022, including 260 departures in 2022 or about 520 operations. The G550 is the current “critical aircraft,” or the largest general aviation or air taxi aircraft with at least 500 operations annually flying at ASE. Credit: Photo by Oliver Semple

The 2023 aviation demand forecast projects that total general aviation and air taxi operations will increase in the next 20 years by about 29%, with an annualized growth rate of 1.3% per year, an analysis relying on an FAA forecast and “assumptions based on local market conditions.” The report also forecasts that the existing Gulfstream G650 and in-production aircraft such as the G700/800, the Bombardier Global 8000 and the Dassault Falcon 10X — all of which are not currently allowed to fly into ASE due to their larger wingspan — will enter service between 2032 and 2037 at ASE, provided that the runway is expanded.

“Based on information shared by Gulfstream with the airport,” the report says, “there is a strong demand for access to ASE with new yet‐to‐be‐delivered Gulfstream jets.”

Amory Lovins, president of Aspen Fly Right, a group that is casting doubt on the need for the runway expansion, is skeptical of the general aviation operations growth forecast presented in the report. 

“GA operations fell 4.5% per year in 2000-14 and 1.7% per year in 2000-22, then fell again in 2022 after a two-year surge of pandemic refugees. I see no cause likely to sustain significant GA growth except for superefficient and electric air taxis,” Lovins wrote. “But if their generous growth forecast were achieved, their point-to-point routes would replace some [air carrier] travel, whose grossly exaggerated forecast would become even less plausible, further undermining expansionist arguments.”

He also pointed out that innovation in the aviation industry, such as the development of electric jets, was not considered in the forecast. 

In 2021-22, ASE recorded 31 general aviation operations from a Boeing 737-500, a smaller version of the common commercial airliner, from one aircraft — a 1998 Boeing 737-500 registered under a Texas-based oil and gas company, Montex Drilling Co. That plane is able to land in Aspen with its 95-foot wingspan. Credit: Photo by Oliver Semple

Where are we flying?

Flightaware data provides insights on the origin and destination of each aircraft that flies in or out of ASE. The most common destinations from 2021-22 for air taxi and general aviation aircraft were Centennial (near Denver), Van Nuys (near Los Angeles), Dallas and Eagle County. Rifle is the fifth-most-common origin city and the 12th-most-common destination.

The busiest general aviation airports in the country include Teterboro, New Jersey; West Palm Beach, Florida; Dallas Love Field, Texas; Westchester, New York and Van Nuys — all of which serve large metropolitan areas and three of them are among the 10 most-common origin or destination airports for ASE operations. However, there is also a lot of traffic heading to and from other regional airports. 

“The airplanes tend to go from Aspen to where the next charter is, whether Rifle, Eagle, Denver,” according to the Atlantic Aviation spokesperson.

Brian Condie, director of the Rifle Garfield County Airport, said Rifle’s airport activity is strongly linked to Aspen’s. 

“When Aspen has a very busy year with aircraft operations, the Rifle airport has a very busy year; when Aspen has a bad or an off year [with] low aircraft operations, we have low aircraft operations,” he said. “If they can’t get into Aspen because of the weather or size of aircraft, then they’ll come here to access the region.”

A number of factors drive so-called drop-and-go operations at ASE, where passengers are picked up or dropped off, with the aircraft staging or repositioning someplace else, often Eagle, Rifle or a Front Range airport. These factors include the current wingspan restriction at ASE, limited parking space, cost of services and aircraft operator scheduling

“There’s not enough ramp space at the Aspen airport to park all the private jets [that] are coming in here, particularly during the peak periods like Christmas and Fourth of July,” Tomcich said. 

ASE recorded more than 2,000 departing or arriving flights at Eagle County airport in 2021-22 and about 1,500 such flights at the Rifle airport. 

“Some of them will pay for a smaller aircraft, smaller jet aircraft that is accommodated in the Aspen runway safety area to pick them up here and take them up there,” Condie said. “But probably 98% of them just get in a limousine company — ‘a car and driver’ is what it’s called — [that picks] them up and [drives] them up to Aspen.”

Drop-and-go operations, defined as having a two-hour-or-less layover between landing and takeoff, represent about 23% of the airport general aviation and air taxi operations, according to a 2020 Airport Vision Committee presentation. That figure is similar to Eagle County airport’s 21%. 

The 2020 presentation indicates that 38% of all drop‐and‐go operations involve other Colorado airports, while 23% of the drop-and-go operations at Eagle County airport involved other airports in the state. 

“We are tied at the hip with Aspen and Eagle,” Condie said. “We want them to have a good year. That means we’ll have a very good, productive year.”

An Embraer Legacy 500 followed by a small turboprop aircraft Pilatus PC-12 on Aspen-Pitkin County airport’s runway. The Pilatus recorded over 3,000 operations at ASE in 2021 and 2022. The airport saw a total of over 100,000 operations in those two years, including over 91,000 itinerant and 11,320 recreational flights. Credit: Photo by Oliver Semple

This reporting is supported in part by Pitkin County’s Healthy Community Fund.

Editor’s note: This story was corrected to note that the critical change that would allow wider planes at ASE would be increasing the separation between the runway and taxiway from the current 320 feet to 400 feet, not widening the runway. We also removed the reference to the ALP being a prerequisite for terminal funding from the FAA. The story has also been updated to correct Tyson Weihs’ job title (he retired as CEO of ForeFlight in 2022). A correction was also made to Amory Lovins’ title; he is the president of nonprofit group Aspen Fly Right, not the director.

This story ran in The Aspen Times.

Laurine Lassalle is Aspen Journalism’s data desk editor, where she works to catalogue and analyze local public data. She also heads our our “Tracking the Curve” project, documenting COVID-19 in Pitkin,...