Jackson Hole Airport has been smashing monthly records for the number of people flowing through: Year over year the number of air travelers increased 56% in May, and that was followed by another 30% rise in June.
At the same time, other tourism metrics in the valley are about flat. Grand Teton National Park logged fewer entries through its gates in both months compared with 2018. The percentage of hotel rooms filled fell 4% in May, before climbing 3% in June.
The two different dynamics have sparked a conversation about what exactly is going on, and where those tourists are going.
One explanation, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President Anna Olson said, is that the number of tourists flying into and basing out of the valley has risen. Perhaps those higher-dollar guests are supplanting some of the traditional road-tripping, parks-viewing visitors, though Olson is not convinced that is what’s going on.
“I don’t believe there is a migration away because of prices,” she said. “We’re still running 90-plus percent occupancy in the summer. It’s just a different market mix.”
“But the fly market is good for Jackson,” Olson said. “They stay longer and they spend more.”
Average hotel and resort rates have risen steadily over the past five years, to the point where a room for $200 or less during peak Jackson Hole summer is now a relic.
Increased airport use by locals is another factor Olson postulated.
Air travel tourism experts in Jackson Hole seem to think that’s also the case. Past market research commissioned by Jackson Hole Air Improvement Resources and the airport has produced an “opaque” insight into the mix of locals flying in versus tourists.
“Historically, we believed it to be 90-10,” JH Air Executive Director Kari Cooper told the airport’s board of directors earlier this month, “but what the airlines are telling us is 80-20 split, with 20% local.”
By tracking ZIP codes the airlines have also found that shoulder season air travelers in Jackson Hole are about 50% locals, she said.
In the first half of the year Jackson Hole Airport hosted 23% more commercial fliers than it did in the same six-month span in 2018, which set its own record as the busiest ever by an 11% margin. The growth rates in recent years have been most stark in the shoulder seasons, but this year numbers have been up every month, including through the heart of winter.
The gain over the previous record in June translated to an additional 11,461 enplanements that month, Airport Director Jim Elwood told his board at the meeting. He hit an optimistic chord about the impact that those travelers are having on Jackson Hole’s congested summer transit systems.
“In so many ways the airport already is a mass transit connection,” Elwood said. “Those people that are coming by air are not coming by Suburban from Oklahoma City or by some other mechanism to find their way into our spectacular area.”
An often-cited figure is that the valley sees about 4 million tourists a year, of which the airport contributes a relatively small number. Over the course of the summer, the number of people off-loading commercial jets runs around 200,000. Grand Teton National Park logs at least 500,000 “visits” every month June through September, but the two figures can’t be compared apples-to-apples because a single air traveler accounts for a “visit” every time he or she passes through a park entrance gate.
The airport has pointed to increased seats landing in the valley, predominantly aboard American Airlines flights, as one factor explaining the record-shattering numbers. The overall number of wheels-up flights is rising, too. In June, 533 commercial airliners touched down on the runway in Teton park, a 14% increase over landings logged the same month in 2018.
Although the airport is as bustling as ever, the terminal, baggage claim and other relatively new infrastructure have withstood the larger crowds well.
The Saturday after the Fourth of July, Elwood told his board, some 3,100 people passed through Jackson Hole Airport.
“That’s a substantial number for us to work through,” Elwood said. “I’m really pleased to report that the facility operated really smoothly. The team, the airlines, rental cars, restaurant — everybody was really just on their A game.”