Despite Sundance, Heber Valley air traffic lags behind past years
At the Heber Valley Airport, the Sundance Film Festival is known as one of the busiest times of year. So, why is air traffic noticeably down over the past couple weeks?
A world-famous film festival is underway in Park City, and local ski resorts have received the most snowfall in decades this year.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that celebrities and powder-chasers flocking to the area should cause a surge in traffic at the nearest airport that services private flights. In past years, Heber Valley Airport officials estimated roughly a quarter more planes would typically fly in during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City than would arrive during an average winter week.
Not this year, according to FlightAware, which is a website that publishes flight data from airports around the world. It says flight activity at the Heber airport is down about 20% over the past week compared to the same seven days in 2022. That counts total arrivals and departures.
And so far, 2023 traffic is down even more than Sundance traffic.
Over the first 25 days of this year, FlightAware shows 544 arrivals and departures. That’s about 40% fewer than the same period in 2022 and 2021, when Sundance went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Local leaders involved with the airport told KPCW there’s no clear cause for the drop, but offered guesses.
Heber City Councilman Scott Phillips is also a pilot who uses the airport and member of the airport advisory board. He chalked it up to weather.
He said it's because the Heber Valley Airport doesn’t have the instrument landing system technology pilots need to land during storms, which have been frequent in recent weeks.
Airport Manager Travis Biggs said economic trends also tend to correlate with demand for private planes. He speculated the economy could be pushing more people to fly commercial, which isn’t an option at his airport.
But is air traffic down in Heber now, or was it just abnormally high before?
Airport analyst Brian Foley said the private aviation industry soared during COVID, when airlines reduced flights and imposed new rules. That set up a frenetic couple of years for charter and fractional aircraft companies, some of whose customer bases doubled with first-time private fliers.
“There was just some extraordinary activity in the industry,” Foley said. “Fast forward, 2022 is about 5% higher than 2021, which is exceptionally high. During the last half of 2022, it started running out of steam. Many went back to the airlines. They have schedules again, and no mask mandates and that sort of thing.”
He said some would-be private flyers tend to fly commercial when their businesses and stock portfolios underperform, as well as when the threat of recession looms.
He also said the supply for used private planes reached an all-time low, but is starting to creep up again.
He guessed traffic will pick back up at the Heber Valley Airport.
“They are just an ideal spot for private aviation, and I'm sure they'll do well into the future,” Foley said. “Any recent slowdown is just a hiccup, and I think it'll be back on track by, you know, the March-April timeframe — back to typical traffic levels that you saw in 2020, 2021.”
Foley contributes to Forbes.com and other publications. His background includes marketing and engineering for Boeing and Dassault Falcon Jet, and his consulting agency advises aerospace firms and investors.
More data on the Heber Valley Airport is available at flightaware.com.