GYPSUM — Three weekends are left in the ski seasons at Vail and Beaver Creek, but the Eagle County Regional Airport will get offseason quiet starting on Monday.
The 2013-14 winter flight season ends on March 31. Until summer, the only flights will be private aircraft and a daily United Express flight to and from Denver.
“The airlines understand there are plenty of people who want to go skiing (in April), but there aren’t enough to justify flights,” said Greg Phillips, Eagle County’s director of aviation. That means Easter week “destination” guests will have to fly into Denver, then either drive to the Vail Valley or catch the daily flight from Denver to Eagle County.
Despite the loss of that business, and a few other disruptions, the airport had a pretty good winter.
Phillips said the final numbers for March won’t be available for another couple of weeks. But, he said, initial indications are that March of this year was a bit busier than the same month in 2013. That would put the entire winter ahead of the 2012-13 season, if only by a few percentage points.
That modest gain came with the help of a handful of new flights, including a weekly flight from Toronto, and additional service on certain weekends from airlines have flown into Eagle County in the past. The biggest wrench in the limited winter season — just 15 weekends, with daily flights from some markets — came the final weekend in January, when the biggest snowstorm of the winter diverted a number of flights. Heavy winter storms in the eastern part of the country delayed or canceled still more flights.
Despite the modest gains, Phillips said he believes the airport is starting to grow again after several years of declining passenger numbers and fewer available flights into and out of the airport.
The past year has seen the addition of some winter service, as well as a summer-season United Airlines flight from Houston. That flight, which began in 2013, will return this summer, although with fewer flights per week.
Signs of Recovery
That sort of “incremental” growth is fueled by a recovering economy. But boosting service levels at Eagle County past pre-recession levels is going to require work, and, perhaps, new revenue.
That money would pay airlines to bring new flights to the airport. Airlines routinely ask communities for subsidies to ensure new routes don’t lose money. The EGE Air Alliance, a group made up of representatives from Vail Resorts, other local businesses and local governments, this past year raised more than $400,000 to subsidize the summer flight from Houston.
Adding more flights from other cities will require more money for subsidies, something the Alliance is trying to find.
Alliance board president Michael Brown said the lack of a stable funding source to secure new flights puts Eagle County farther behind other resorts every year. The group is now looking at options for providing funding — perhaps some sort of lodging or sales tax which would have to be approved by voters. A decision on which option the group will ask the public about is expected later this spring.
Phillips said a secure source of funding for subsidies could be the difference between incremental growth — the kind seen over the winter — and big jumps in service and available seats. Most of those jumps would probably come in the winter, Phillips said.
Phillips was returning from Washington D.C. when interviewed for this story. He said he talked to a number of people who would like to see winter service to the Vail Valley from the nation’s capital. But that’s going to require a subsidy.
“If you want (flights from) Phoenix, Washington (D.C.) or Charlotte (N.C.), we’re going to have to step up,” he said.