GYPSUM, Colorado - Fewer people flew into and out of the Eagle County Regional Airport in December, something air service boosters will use in a fairly new campaign to build support to bring in more flights.
A fall-off in the number of flights coming into the airport had something to do with the decline in passenger numbers. A weekly flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport was canceled this year, and other flights are coming less often.
But airport manager Greg Phillips said he's confident that numbers from this season will end up roughly equivalent to last season. There are daily and weekend flights to and from Eagle County from Newark, N.J. and JFK airport in New York, Phillips said. People who want a flight can find one, he said.
But the December decline in passenger numbers was more probably due to other, non-airline-related factors.
First, December's snow totals could be most charitably described as "below average." That tends to keep people from traveling, something also reflected in lodging numbers from the early part of the month.
Then there's the quirk of the calendar that moved many schools' Christmas-season breaks to the weekend before Christmas, instead of the week before. That meant fewer people traveled in mid-December.
"We expected (travel) to be down, but not to the extent it was," Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer said. "Something like 78 of the 81 top markets for us had that schedule."
The good news, Romer said, is that Christmas-season reservations were about even with 2011. Passenger numbers for the end of the December were also close to even with the year before, Phillips said.
Long-term reservations seem to back up that assertion. Romer said the Partnership's numbers show that February and March look "OK" compared to last year, thanks especially to a boost in traffic caused by last week's big snowfall.
"We saw both last-minute reservations and reservations for the rest of the season last week," he said.
The January passenger numbers - which should be tabulated in the next week or so - may be better. But Phillips said the number of flights into the airport is a long-term problem, something that needs to be addressed.
That's the point behind a new push by the Eagle Air Alliance to find funding to help bring flights to the county.
"We're not going to sit here and just hope more people come," Phillips said.
To that end, the alliance is working on business associations and local governments in an effort to drum up more private funding for the revenue guarantees airlines demand for creating a route or expanding service.
While Denver International Airport will always play a large role in bringing destination visitors to the Vail Valley, Romer said research indicates that people who fly directly to Eagle County tend to stay longer, and spend more money.
But, he said, rebuilding the flight program has some urgency, particularly since other resorts have dedicated funding sources for their programs and are increasing the number of flights to those destination.
Those revenue guarantees are going to take more participation from the valley's business community. Gabe Shalley, the director of Vail Resorts' air service program, said that company will continue to participate. But, Romer said, more is needed, and building support - support that ultimately results in business owners writing checks - will take some time.
"We're not going to take this lying down," Phillips said. "We're going to be aggressive about this."
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.