JACKSON — Going into the summer, Snake River boatman Jim Stanford had an expectation that it would be a relatively quiet season on the water.
A global pandemic, after all, was in progress, and the commercial aviation industry had been hit hard, causing a retraction in the number of flights that would be jetting over Grand Teton National Park inbound into Jackson Hole Airport.
By mid-July, however, the longtime river guide came to realize his preseason wishes for unusually quiet skies hadn’t been granted.
“It’s been quite busy, and especially with private jets,” Stanford told the Jackson Hole Airport’s board of directors last month. “The volume of private jets has been staggering at times.”
The Jackson town councilor, who addressed the board as a private citizen, gave his public comment amid a conversation about the early results of Jackson Hole Airport’s “Fly Quiet” program. That program grades commercial airlines and charter and business flight companies, encouraging them to fly quieter aircraft, abide by the voluntary runway curfew and take routes that steer clear of the designated noise-sensitive areas of Teton Park.
Data logged by Jackson Hole Airport back up Stanford’s observation.
Commercial air travel into Jackson Hole fell off dramatically through the early summer. In June, the last full month data were available, enplanement figures at the airport were down 81% compared with the year prior.
In July the number of commercial flights increased substantially, though Delta, American, United and Skywest’s business into the Teton County jet hub totals still lagged behind 2019 levels by more than 50%.
Not so with private plane traffic.
In June, “general aviation” traffic observed at the Jackson Hole Airport tower was up 24%.
The year-over-year bump observed by the tower was 9% in July, but the traffic picked up steam the second half of the month.
A noise monitoring system that Jackson Hole Airport pulls data from and posts on its website estimates that there were 1,026 business jet operations during the last 16 days of the month, an average of 64 landings and takeoffs daily.
On the same stretch of days a year ago there were 844 business jet operations, an average of 53 a day. That translates to about a 20% increase in 2020.
Economic reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic surpassed the financial hit of the 2007 to ’09 Great Recession by most metrics. But the financial turmoil is having the opposite effect on private plane traffic in Jackson Hole.
Using jet fuel sales as a barometer, private plane traffic into Jackson Hole dropped 45% in the years after the previous recession. A dozen years later, despite the economic fallout, the novel coronavirus is causing more people to make use of business and charter jets that are inbound into Jackson Hole Airport.
Rick Colson, who founded and presides over Jackson Hole-based New Flight Charters, said the pandemic has caused a roller coaster for his business, which offers on-demand private flights to destinations around the United States.
“Especially this summer — June and July — our demand has gone way up, because of the increase in demand for flying privately,” Colson told the News&Guide.
The profile of the typical client New Flight Charters has gained is someone who chartered flights sporadically in the past but more often flew first class commercially.
“People who have the means to fly privately but didn’t always find the value in it are now are finding the value in it,” Colson said. “This segment has really come out over the summer.”
New Flight Charters’ business in the summer is up about 30% compared with 2019, Colson said. Demand is off the charts in markets that offer wide-open spaces and ample second homes, like Aspen; Bozeman, Montana; Sun Valley, Idaho; and New Flight Charters’ home base, Jackson Hole.
“Our Jackson-related business is probably three times what it normally is,” Colson said. “We’ve just been slammed the past eight weeks.”