Scott N. Miller

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October 25, 2013
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Eagle County Regional Airport passenger numbers on long slide

EAGLE COUNTY — Eagle County isn’t alone in looking for more air service. In fact, passenger numbers are dropping at resort airports all across the state.

A chart of Federal Aviation Administration info shows passenger numbers sliding at most resort airports in Colorado. Only Denver International Airport and the airport in Durango posted 10-year highs in passenger “enplanements” in 2012, while four hit 10-year lows. One of those airports was Eagle County Regional Airport.

Passenger numbers at the county airport have been sliding steadily since 2007, when there were 213,719 enplanements in the calendar year, which covers parts of two ski seasons. There were 167,914 enplanements in 2012, the last full year for which numbers are available.

Interestingly, 2007 was the 10-year low for Sardy Field in Aspen. That airport’s 10-year high came in 2010, although passenger numbers have exceeded 200,000 since 2008. But the trend across the resorts is clear — fewer passengers are arriving on fewer flights.

“This is what we’ve been talking about,” Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer said. Romer and other local business leaders have put new life into the EGE Air Alliance, a group that pulls together money to pay “revenue guarantees” for new flights to the airport. Those guarantees are needed to ensure airlines will make money on a specific route. The alliance, using money from mostly public but partly private, sources, raised $400,000 to lure a summer flight from Houston this year.

As recently as 10 years ago, there were several “legacy” carriers, including United, American, Northwest, Delta and Continental. All those airlines flew winter routes into Eagle County. Today, United and Continental have merged, as have Delta and Northwest. American is in the midst of a proposed merger with US Airways.

Those carriers have cut back on routes and people, Romer said.

Airlines are also moving away from the roughly 190-passenger Boeing 757 and into the planes that carry about 140 people. That trend will cost Eagle County 5,500 seats per year by 2015, Romer said.

Beyond the effect air service has on hotels and restaurants, it can also affect real estate sales.

Tony Bartell, owner of Field of Streams Real Estate, said many of his clients have come to depend on seasonal air service into the valley.

Bartell said he recently sold a home in Bachelor Gulch to a family from the Houston area. This summer’s flight from that city was “a huge convenience for them,” he said.

While passenger numbers are growing in Denver, Bartell said his clients don’t want to fly from one big city to another. “The ambiance (at Eagle County) is of a ski vacation,” he said. “It’s a big consideration.”

The convenience of being able to fly non-stop from a major airline hub into an airport a few minutes from the slopes has been a big factor in the growth of Park City in Utah, Romer said.

While Air Alliance representatives have made clear their desire for some kind of permanent funding method to lure new flights — perhaps some kind of valley-wide tax, although plans remain very much in the talking stages — money alone won’t do the job.

“We’ve got to be aggressive... we need to find ways that make sense to the airlines,” Eagle County Director of Aviation Greg Phillips said. “Airlines have (communities) coming at them all the time that want service. We need to bring in a plan with what we’re all willing to do.”

Only Denver International Airport and the airport in Durango posted 10-year highs in passenger “enplanements” in 2012, while four hit 10-year lows. One of those airports was Eagle County Regional Airport.

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The VailDaily Updated Oct 27, 2013 03:51PM Published Oct 28, 2013 02:42PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.