Private plane traffic plunges
Operations, fuel sales at Jackson Hole Airport are way down from 2006.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
August 31, 2011
Private plane traffic at Jackson Hole Airport has dropped significantly since 2006, likely due to ongoing economic woes and the high price of fuel, industry experts said.
Airport officials say general aviation operations — which include takeoffs and landings — dropped 28 percent, from about 21,700 operations in 2006 to 15,700 in 2008. Operations have since rebounded slightly to about 18,700 in 2010, but that’s still a 14 percent decline since 2006.
Airport officials caution that operations numbers do not include takeoffs and landings between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., when the airport tower is closed.
Perhaps a better measure of the decline in general aviation is the drop in fuel deliveries to the airport’s fixed base operator, Jackson Hole Aviation, airport officials say.
The operator received 2,392,692 gallons of fuel in 2006 and 1,303,329 in 2009, a decline of 46 percent. Last year, the operator received 1,339,813 gallons, down 44 percent from 2006.
Jackson Hole Aviation officials did not return calls for comment.
“General aviation is way down,” said Ray Bishop, the airport’s director. “It’s gotten to be very difficult.”
The declining general aviation numbers at Jackson Hole Airport are part of a nationwide trend. Total hours flown by general aviation aircraft in the United States declined by more than 14 percent, from nearly 28 million hours in 2006 to about 24 million hours in 2009, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
In Jackson Hole, the decline in general aviation traffic has affected businesses that serve those who own and operate private planes, said Mike Gierau, owner of Jedediah’s at the Airport.
After the economic meltdown in 2008, the portion of Gierau’s business that provided catering to private aircraft plummeted.
“Over 40 percent of our business just evaporated,” he said. “It’s been coming back slowly, very slowly. It still has a long way to go. It’s not the high-flying days that it was.”
More people on each plane
The declines reflect not only a poor economy but also a shift in how people use private planes, Gierau said.
“What we have noticed is there are fewer planes total, but there are more people on each plane,” he said.
Some corporations have switched to buying shares of an aircraft instead of purchasing an entire plane, Jackson Hole Airport board member Jerry Blann said. Companies such as NetJets offer their clients guaranteed access to an aircraft for a certain number of hours or days per year.
“You don’t have to maintain it,” Blann said to explain what makes the offer attractive.
Some charter companies have fared well. New Flight Charters, a jet charter business based in Jackson Hole, was recently named one of the fastest-growing companies in America for the third year running.
These changes have an effect on fuel purchases. Fractional aircraft companies and other types of charter operators might choose to refuel at a less expensive airport.
Prices for fuel from Jackson Hole Aviation vary from $6.70 to $6.99, more than a dollar higher that fuel sold at Teton Aviation just over the Tetons in Driggs, Idaho.
Teton Aviation officials did not immediately return calls for comment.
Within the aviation industry, experts say the rich can still afford private aircraft, Bishop said
“The corporate jets at $10 million a pop, they’re doing quite well,” Bishop said. “They’re supporting the industry right now.”
“Are the little guys still coming? The answer is no,” Bishop said.
Again, fuel might have something to do with the change in traffic at the airport.
“The private jet world, that’s an expensive little world,” Gierau said. “Fuel is expensive everywhere. If you don’t have the wherewithal to operate the plane, you’re not operating it.”
Single legs between Jackson and the East Coast on a large private jet can cost more than $25,000.
The dollar extra for fuel bought here “is nothing more than the usual, extra cost for doing business in Jackson Hole,” Gierau said.
“There’s no question there is a little bit of competition over in Driggs ... for local aviators,” he said.
Some Rocky Mountain resort towns are reporting similar changes.
At the City of Steamboat Springs (Colo.) Airport/Bob Adams Field, fuel sales have dropped about 22 percent and operations are down about 25 percent, said Mel Baker, airport manager.
In Steamboat, perhaps the biggest decline comes from recreational pilots — people who might own smaller aircraft as a hobby. Those pilots simply can’t pay the fuel costs, Baker said. Steamboat sees a lot of recreational pilots from Denver and other places in the Front Range, he said.
“It’s expensive to begin with, but the recreational flier is looking at 25 to 30 percent additional fuel costs this year over last year,” Baker said. “That’s what has really caused the reduction in recreational flier activity.”
Impact on airport slight
The overall impact of the decline in general aviation to Jackson Hole Airport is slight, Bishop said. The airport derives about 6 percent of its income from general aviation.
By comparison, rental cars account for about 40 percent of the airport’s income.
Commercial aviation is “our central focus,” Bishop said.
The reduction in the number of private aircraft has helped reduce the number of “noise events” affecting Grand Teton National Park, Bishop said.
Blann said the downward trend in general aviation is beginning to reverse itself.
“This summer, our numbers rebounded,” he said. “I was out here, and we had airplanes stacked up in as many places as we can park them. We tend to fill our available spaces.”
The business was especially brisk with the recent meeting of Federal Reserve policy makers this month.
“My sense is that there is going to be a continual demand for general aviation,” Blann said.