EAGLE COUNTY — Time for marketing was already tight by the time a local group had put together a financial package to bring a United Airlines summer flight from Houston to the Eagle County Regional Airport. That’s one reason backers say this year’s flights represent a good start and, perhaps, are a portent of things to come.
The flight ran from June through the end of August. The planes, Boeing 737 airliners that seat about 130 people, were just more than 60 percent full through the season. That added up to about 3,000 “destination” visitors to the valley during the summer. Most of those people were new visitors, too. Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said the passenger numbers were about the same as last year from both existing flights from Dallas and Denver.
“I think it was pretty good for a first year flight,” said Michael Brown, of the EGE Air Alliance.
Attracting New Flights
The EGE Air Alliance was formed last year to respond to a several-years-long trend of the airport losing service from various cities, and seats on the many of the planes flying in. Those losses came for reasons ranging from airline mergers to the slumping economy, but were losses just the same. Further losses in seats are certain in the future, as airlines move away from the 180-seat Boeing 757 to the 130-seat 737.
Attracting new flights almost always requires revenue guarantees from communities to airlines, so airlines won’t lose money on new routes. For instance, it took a $400,000 guarantee to bring the Houston flight to Eagle County. A still-undetermined portion of that guarantee will have to be paid out.
For years, guarantees from Eagle County were financed primarily by local governments, Vail Resorts and a handful of other businesses. Last year, the Alliance launched an effort to broaden the base of those contributions, with representatives speaking to town councils, Rotary Clubs and any other groups they could find. Those representatives weren’t shy about asking for checks.
In the winter, the Alliance and United agreed that the airline would bring a flight from Houston if the local group could raise the guarantee, which was eventually set at $400,000.
The good news, Brown said, is that successful flights eventually don’t need revenue guarantees after a few years. American Airlines’ summer flight from Dallas has operated without those guarantees for several years.
“It generally takes a route two or three years to mature,” Phillips said. “The fact we were above 60 percent (on the Houston flight) bodes well for the future.”
And it may not take many more passengers for United to drop the current subsidy. The un-subsidized flight from Dallas ran between 65 and 68 percent this summer, Phillips said. On the other hand, that flight still uses the bigger 757 aircraft.
With the Houston flight in the books for this year, the Alliance is planning for the future. Those plans include more than hitting the Rotary and chamber of commerce circuit, though.
“Our primary mission is to continue the Houston flight,” Brown said. “But we’ll keep an eye on finding long-term funding sources.”
To translate, a “stable, long-term” funding source means some sort of tax. Air programs in other resorts use taxpayer funding for flight guarantee pools, Brown said. And competition for some sort of tax — just what sort is still being discussed — seems to be the only way to generate the kind of money needed for a good-sized revenue-guarantee pool.
Brown said he’d like to see a pool of between $1.5 million and $2 million per year. That could be enough to put up money for a few new flights every year.
But where would those flights come from?
Phillips and others have long talked about flights from Washington D.C. — “I know I’d rather be here than there,” he said. Raleigh or Charlotte, both in North Carolina, are also possibilities.
Phoenix might be another possibility in the “where would you rather be?” summer-flight derby. Phillips said that might work if a proposed merger between American and U.S. Airways goes through.
The important thing is being able to compete for those flights, Phillips said.
“If air service is important to a community to create economic vitality, (tax funding) makes sense,” Phillips said. “We want to give the voters an opportunity to weigh in on it.”