EAGLE COUNTY - A local group seeking to bring new air service to the Eagle County Regional Airport announced Friday it has secured a new United Airlines flight from Houston this summer.
The EGE Air Alliance, a group made up of local businesses, government officials and other community members, announced the five day per week nonstop Houston flight will begin service June 27 through the month of August. Service will run from Houston to Eagle Thursdays through Mondays, and from Eagle to Houston Fridays through Tuesdays.
The Alliance was formed to reverse a trend over the past several years that had seen fewer commercial flights coming into the county airport. Some of those flights had been lost due to mergers in the airline industry. Others were dropped by the airlines for economic reasons, but the result was the same.
Bringing new flights to the county requires more than salesmanship and lobbying, though - it takes money, in the form of "revenue guarantees." Those guarantees provide airlines with a financial backstop, meaning they won't lose money on a flight if the number of paying passengers won't cover the airlines' costs.
In the case of the Houston flight, United ultimately asked for $485,000. That money had to be raised from both local governments and businesses. That's where salesmanship and lobbying took place.
Chris Romer, CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, was deeply involved in the Alliance's lobbying, speaking to any number of town councils and business groups ranging from area chambers of commerce to the valley's several Rotary Clubs.
That lobbying, by Romer and others, resulted in roughly 55 businesses writing checks to guarantee the flight. Romer said in past years, only about 20 businesses had contributed to those flight guarantees.
"I think that the Houston flight for the summer months shows the ability of our local business community, when we have an issue or an opportunity in front of us, how the business community can rally and control our own destiny," Romer said.
Among those businesses writing new checks was one Romer had never even lobbied, but had heard about the Alliance effort and believed in it, he said.
Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said he was excited to hear the official announcement about the flight. New flights mean new revenue for communities, starting with more hours for people working in airport support services and ground transportation businesses, Phillips said. Those revenue prospects radiate out to businesses up and down the valley.
Romer said the most recent Colorado Department of Transportation study of airport economic impacts, conducted in 2008, showed that every available commercial seat coming into an airport represents about $2,300 in economic impact to the community.
When called to comment on the story, Mechelle Cappel, co-owner of Elite Limousine, asked twice if the deal with United had really been finalized.
Assured that the flight is coming, Cappel said the results will be good for the valley, although she said the choice of the plane providing the service may not be able to take off fully loaded from Eagle County in the heat of the summer.
Still, she said, "I'm really glad we're getting it."
With the Houston flight lined up, the job now is to make sure people are on those planes.
"Empty planes won't help," Phillips said.
Success on the Houston flight will help the Alliance lobby and raise money for more summer service. Romer said the group still has more work to do. The work never really stops because there are always opportunities for more flights. The group is currently thinking about future flights from Toronto, Washington D.C. and Chicago.
All those flights will require fundraising, which will probably require more than just fundraising from the business community.
In a previous interview, Romer said other resort communities pay for flight guarantees with tax revenue, using methods ranging from dedicated sales taxes to establishing marketing districts with the authority to levy taxes.
Regardless of what Eagle County's flight program might look like in the future, the Houston flight has Phillips optimistic about the future.
"This is an opportunity to show ourselves and what we can do," Phillips said.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning contributed to this report.