Ski towns have spent decades building service to their airports, seat by seat, flight by flight. Winning a new flight from a major carrier is an accomplishment that is justifiably touted. That extra plane carries the town's and nearby resorts' lifeblood inside of it: tourists and money. More flightc s means more skiers, more hotel stays, more lift tickets, more restaurant checks and more revenue. It's a simple equation. This is why many resorts are willing to guarantee airlines a certain amount of revenue for any flights they commit to a resort's regional airport.
For some resorts, like Jackson Hole and Telluride, the flights are a requirement to operate. For others, like Vail, flights to the local airport are nice, but they can still count on tourists making the two-hour drive from Denver and a steady base of Denver folk to make the drive up for weekends.
For skiers, ski town airports offer the ultimate in convenience. In some cases skiers can ski on their days of arrival and departure because of the minimal amount of schlepping required to get from airport to slope and vice versa. Some ski town airports are better than others, a fact we're here to discuss.
What makes a great ski town airport? Several things, in basically this order:
For this examination, we looked at true ski town airports, so Denver, Reno and Salt Lake City aren't included. Salt Lake, it could be argued, is a true ski town airport in that it's only 35 minutes from many ski areas. But it's a major international hub airport, which puts it in a different class than the nine ski town airports that we included in this.
To start, we examined the winter flight schedules for each airport and tallied all the regular flights that operated for a majority of the winter. These flights can be daily flights, or in some cases weekly or 2-3 times a week. We excluded extra holiday flights that mostly occur during the 10-day Christmas-to-New Years period.
The daily flight is the most sought after prize for ski resorts, of course. What airlines will often do when scheduling service to a new airport is first schedule flights for Saturdays from a major hub. If that works, they'll often add Sunday, then Wednesday, then the whole week if enough of the seats are filled. This evolution can take a decade or longer.
Here's where things stand for ski town airports, as of 2015:
Aspen's big lead in total flights is striking, when put in this graphical context. It's not wholly surprising, given the nature of Aspen's clientele, and the fact that driving to Aspen from Denver requires an extra 90 minutes compared with Vail or Beaver Creek. It should be noted, however, that all of the planes landing in Aspen are smaller, regional jets, as the airport's runway is too short to handle the 737s and 757s that often operate out of Jackson Hole and Vail-Eagle. That being said, Aspen is still our No. 1 Ski Town airport.
Aspen's sheer volume of flights makes getting there by air quite convenient for those willing to spend the extra money. Just as important, Aspen's runway sits nearly on top of the slopes at Buttermilk, and is just a 10-minute drive to those at Highlands or Aspen Mountain. Snowmass is just 20 minutes off. There is no airport closer to the snow in North America. Travelers from Chicago can take an 8 a.m. flight from O'Hare and be skiing by noon in Colorado. Going home affords the same kind of luxury: ski until 2 p.m., take a 4 p.m. flight home, and most people are back at their kitchen tables by 8:30 p.m.
One caveat to the Aspen airport is the fact that it's dominated by a single carrier. By our count, United controls about 85% of the flights into Aspen, with a third of those originating from close-by Denver. United also offers a heavy slate of flights per week into Aspen from Chicago (35), Los Angeles (28), and San Francisco (14).
If a Russian oligarch built himself a $1 billion airport in his favorite mountain town, it would probably resemble the renovated Jackson Hole Airport. From the massive fireplaces and the welcoming leather furniture in the main terminal, to the sharply designed bathrooms in the ticketing lobby, this is simply the nicest commercial airport in the United States. Jackson Hole airport handles even more traffic in the summer than the winter, as it's one of the main portals for tourists to reach Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Twelve cities have non-stop flights into Jackson during the ski season, giving it one more than Steamboat and Bozeman.
By car, the airport is a short 21 miles from the slopes at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort—and it's only that far because no direct road between the airport and the lifts exists. If one did, the distance would be an even shorter six miles or so. But paving new roads through National Parkland, even for enterprising resort owners like the Kemmerer family, owners of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, is a hard thing to accomplish.
Jackson has a good balance of airlines and the largest number of source airports at 12. United controls about half the flights coming in, with Delta making up most of the balance along with a smattering of American Flights. Daily directs arrive from a disparate number of cities: Salt Lake, Denver, Chicago (on a bigger 737), Los Angeles, Dallas and nearly daily flights from Atlanta and San Francisco.
The Eagle Vail Airport is 35 miles from the slopes at Vail and 32 miles to Beaver Creek. It saves travelers considerable time—and a sometimes hazardous highway mountain pass—compared with flying into Denver. Most skiers at Vail and Beaver Creek still originate from Denver, however, but there are so many resorts in the area, and so many skiers, that Eagle Vail still has 95 regular flights per week in the winter.
Similar to Jackson Hole, many of the planes landing at Eagle Vail are of the larger variety: 757s and newer 737s. This means the airport can easily take flights from the East Coast, which is something of a rarity for ski town airports. American sends daily winter flights to Eagle Vail from Miami and New York's JFK. Aspen has no regular directs from either of those places, nor does Jackson Hole. Delta also sends one flight a day from Atlanta, which makes Vail a popular destination for those in the Southeast. Air Canada also has a weekly Saturday flight from Toronto.
Other than a eight weekly Delta flights, United and American just about split traffic into Eagle Vail, although more than half of United's flights come from its Denver hub. American has made Eagle Vail its largest ski airport and has the most flights of any airline into Eagle Vail with 45 per week. American's daily service is spread out among Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New York.
The Yampa Valley airport is just 28 miles from Steamboat's ski slopes and it hosts an impressive 70 regular flights per week during the winter. United owns about half of those flights, with American and Delta about evenly splitting the remainder.
Steamboat was one of the first destination ski resorts to reach out and begin pulling in people from the Midwest and East, decades ago, and its generous airline schedule is a reflection of that heritage—and it's why Steamboat can remain a major destination resort despite being a 180-mile drive from Denver, which keeps away many metro area weekend trippers.
Yampa Airport includes a wide diversity of origins in its daily flights, with planes regularly arriving from Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Houston, with 3-4 flights per week from Los Angeles and Seattle (Alaska Airlines for the latter).
Montrose's airport is 62 miles from Telluride's main street. It hosts 61 regular flights per week for much of the winter—with an increase to nearly 70 during the busy weeks of late February and most of March, when Telluride's high altitude and northerly aspects make it a strong candidate for any skier's spring break.
Telluride has battled an image amongst many skiers who perceive it to be a hard-to-get-to place. It's true that it takes 70 to 80 minutes to get from the airport to town and slopes, but once a skier is in Telluride, there's no place that's easier to navigate. But that's a far easier commute than, say, driving from Denver to Keystone. A car simply isn't necessary in Telluride.
There exist a bevy of direct flight options into the regional airport during the winter. Daily directs arrive from Denver, Chicago, Dallas and Houston with multiple flights weekly from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Newark and Atlanta.
Renting a car is a fine option from the airport, but skiers can choose from dozens of different shuttle services, often the best and easiest option.
BONUS content! Big Sky - Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport
Bozeman's airport is 46 miles from Big Sky's front steps. That means its about the same distance from the private Yellowstone Club, although fewer of the skiers from the latter place bother with silly things like commercial airlines.
For its ridiculous size—5,800 acres after swallowing Moonlight Basin—Big Sky remains a rather sleepy outpost, although it's managed to build a steady stream of flights from major hubs and a few other spots around North America. There is no other reasonable way to get to Big Sky other than on a plane during the winter. The closest large metropolitan area is Salt Lake City, which is almost 400 miles away and, of course, boasts plenty of skiing options itself. After that, it's Seattle, Denver and Portland, which are all 700-plus miles away by car.
Bozeman's airport has a nice split between United and Delta with a daily from Seattle on Alaska Airlines. American has ceded Bozeman to this group and doesn't fly there at all. United's flights include daily arrivals from Chicago and Denver along with a few flights a week from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston. Delta has daily flights from Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, and weekly stops from Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Number of cities with non-stops to each ski town airport:
Runners up to the top 5 listed above would be Montrose-Telluride and Sun Valley. Montrose loses a few points as it takes 70 minutes to get from the airport to Telluride, although at least half of the drive is through some of the most scenic country in North America. Sun Valley is likely next, but it has zero service from Eastern or Midwestern cities, continuing to be a fixation of California and the West Coast, with more than half of its flights originating there.