Photo: Jack Affleck / Vail Resorts
Photo: Jack Affleck / Vail Resorts

Slippery slopes

As an adult, the only time that I’ve shed tears out of fear was on a ski slope in New England some years ago. As a wobbly neophyte, I made a wrong turn at the top and found myself hurtling downhill on an advanced slope at breakneck speed, bouncing like a frozen basketball over ice patches, astonished at remaining upright, but certain that my immediate future included catastrophic injury. Or worse.

“Whoa!” said my son with a mixture of horror and relief, as I finally clattered to the bottom and collapsed into a snowbank.
“That was fun,” I muttered darkly, snapping off the skis.

I’ve never been back to a ski slope. I now live in the Arizona desert, in Tucson, where the only snow I ever see is on the mountains in late winter, up where it belongs, as I ride my horse in the sunny, warm valley.

So skiing is definitely not for me. On the other hand, it is a favorite activity for many vacationers, including business jet travelers. In Colorado alone, skiing and snowboarding annually generate $4.8 billion in economic impact and account for more than seven million out-of-state visitors, according to a 2015 report by Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts.

Before you can ski, of course, you have to get to the slopes. In New England, that’s mainly done by driving, but in the West, where the best American skiing is and where the season persists well into spring, most visitors arrive by air. At Denver International Airport, for example, skiers ac­-
counted for 8 percent of non-­connecting arrivals during the 2013–14 ski season.

Given the growing inconven­iences of airlines, private jet travel for ski trips is growing in importance, especially in the West. “Someone who has a business jet for visiting his 17 car dealerships in five states still wants to fly privately, sometimes gathering family along the way, when he’s on vacation,” says Doug Golan, who publishes a travel and lifestyles newsletter that’s marketed to high-net-worth individuals, including jet owners.

Some travel agencies now specialize in “bucket list” packages with a “private jet experience” for affluent skiers. For example, the luxury tour operator Black Tomato sells what strikes me as a downright daunting eight-night adventure that starts with rugged back-country skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming; continues on to the Whistler resort near Vancouver; and ends up, after a transpacific flight and a bullet-train ride from Tokyo, at Mt. Naeba in Japan.

Meanwhile, a lot of skiing in the U.S. occurs on business trips, including corporate meetings and conferences that are scheduled for snow country in the winter and early spring.

“Companies or CEOs come in on their jets and either conduct business while on the slopes or head out in the morning to ski and come back on the property in the afternoon for meetings,” says Scott Gubrud, the marketing director at the Four Seasons Resort in Vail, Colorado, which does a robust business in corporate conferences.

Many ski resorts report a growing number of customers who travel by business or other private jets. At the Telluride Airport, the number of general-aviation passengers rose 7.6 percent during the 2015–16 ski season. At the Eagle County Regional Airport in Vail, where skiers account for 60 percent of domestic and global traffic, much of the commercial service depends on subsidies given to airlines by the ski industry.

Meanwhile, general aviation flights are gradually growing and are forecast to increase from 26,000 in 2010 to 30,000 by 2030. One underlying factor: the airport has an extended 9,000-foot runway that is luring more business jets. These jets tend to make fewer flights than propeller-driven aircraft, but with longer flight segments, according to the airport’s forecasts.

The fact that ski resorts are at high altitude in fairly remote locations is driving more decisions on what kind of business jet to buy, especially in the American Southwest, says Janine Iannarelli, founder and president of Par Avion, a global business aircraft brokerage headquartered in Houston, with an office in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

“With the clients I’m seeing, but especially the ones coming out of Texas, one of the elements now factored into the equation is whether that aircraft will perform well in the high altitudes of ski country,” says Iannarelli. “Clients want that capability not just in winter but all year, because so many of them own second homes there.”

“You know the challenges of going in and out of Aspen or Vail,” she says. “You want an airplane that can get up and go.”

That’s true, and happy ski trails to those of you headed for the mountains this season. As for me, I’m happily staying down here in the desert on a high-performing quarter horse that also can get up and go. Where it’s warm.

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Joe Sharkey, the author of six books and a longtime BJT contributor, wrote a weekly business travel column for the New York Times for 16 years.