EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - While the ski resort and tourism industries might be Eagle County's economic engine, the Eagle County Regional Airport is the oil that keeps it running.
The airport recently released its winter flight schedule, which is almost the same as last winter's schedule, minus a once-a-week flight from New York's La Guardia Airport. The decrease in service is small, but it follows a trend at the airport since the 2009-10 winter season of flight service reductions.
The EGE Air Alliance, a public-private partnership that includes the county, towns and about 20 local businesses, is a group that has worked to ensure successful flight programs in and out of Eagle. Kent Myers, who leads the group, said if the trend of decreased flight service at the airport continues, "it's a little concerning."
"We've lost a lot of seats," Myers said. "Managing an air program takes broad-based support. It takes involvement by a multitude of different industries, government and different sections of the community. People need to be aware this trend is something to be cautious of."
That's one of the reasons why management of the alliance is being restructured. The alliance will soon operate under the Vail Valley Partnership with a mission of growing flight service - the original mission of the alliance - but with a more organized focus.
Vail Valley Partnership Executive Director Chris Romer said the airport should be the county's top economic development priority. Bringing the alliance under the leadership of the Partnership should open the door to more successful fundraising followed by - hopefully - growth at the airport, Romer said.
"Right now about 20 businesses participate in the (alliance)," Romer said. "We plan to grow it to about 200 to 250 businesses or more."
Myers thinks the new structure should make long-term sense for the community.
"We have a great asset at the Eagle Airport," Myers said. "We have to utilize that as a marketing tool to position the resort and community in better light."
Lack of funding
More support is so important because money is important. In order for the airport to secure flights, the alliance often has to make deals with the airlines and pay them to bring flights in. If the flights sell enough seats throughout the season to cover the costs, then the money isn't needed, but it's absolutely needed to secure the deals, known as revenue guarantees.
The alliance hoped to bring in a flight from Washington's Dulles airport this winter, but a lack of funding meant the deal fell apart.
"The alliance was interested, Vail Resorts was interested, but in the end the deal just wasn't reached," said Greg Phillips, the aviation director at the airport.
Phillips said the alliance has been discussing how to strengthen its efforts, including how to identify and promote markets with strong opportunities for flight service.
"We'd like to be aggressive with our air service program," Phillips said.
Without a steady revenue stream, however, the alliance faces funding shortages. And 20 or so businesses and organizations isn't enough to make an improvement, Myers said.
"We've got to figure out a way that more people are engaged in this thing," Myers said. "If you did a survey, I bet 95 percent of the people wouldn't have a clue how this airport operates - we've got to do a better job with that. ... I think the existing program would continue to trend downward and that's not good."
Romer said not all flight losses are related to a lack of funding - some flights have disappeared due to airline consolidations - but every seat lost is a direct economic opportunity the community has lost, he said.
"The trend is moving in the wrong direction," Romer said.
When considering year-round service, the airport is down about 20 percent in terms of seats over the last five years, Romer said.
'Strengthen and refine'
Gabe Shalley, manager of airline marketing and sales for Vail Resorts, said she had no comment when contacted by the Vail Daily about the winter flight program.
Beaver Creek Resort Marketing Director Jim Kellen is optimistic about the alliance's new direction.
"We're all very excited about the new collaboration with the Vail Valley Partnership and the Eagle Air Alliance," Kellen said. "We think the air program will benefit hugely from greater community participation and relationships that the Partnership can bring to the table."
Phillips said the airport is certainly satisfied with this winter's program and notes that American flights have been doing well and the Miami market continues to be a strong performer. He said the airport would like to see the American Los Angeles flight perform better, and in general would love to see the entire flight program grow.
"What we've been working on - this large group of folks - is how to strengthen and refine our efforts so we can bring in even more flights," Phillips said.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.