GYPSUM — The giant snowstorm that provided much of our ski mountains’ base for the rest of the season had a different effect at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
During that storm, which stretched roughly from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, the airport’s runway remained open, but visibility made it impossible to land, which diverted flights during what should have been a busy weekend. To understand the storm’s effects, consider this: The January and February passenger numbers at the airport this year were .4 percent lower than the same period in 2013. If the diverted flights had landed with their usual passenger loads, then the two-month period would have seen an increase of more than 12 percent.
Despite that storm and a series of storms that have frequently fouled travel east of the Mississippi River, the airport is having a mostly-successful season. That’s good news for the people at the airport and those trying to bring more passengers through the valley’s winged front door.
The solid business has come from several sources. Eagle County Aviation Manager Greg Phillips said that a new-for-this winter weekly flight from Toronto on Air Canada has been successful for a first-year effort. The planes coming from Toronto can hold about 120 passengers, and Phillips said there are usually 80 people or so on the incoming flights.
The Air Canada flight has been successful enough that, while there’s been no official announcement yet, Phillips said the airline has put the flight on its schedule for next ski season.
“That’s fantastic news — it’s great that Air Canada sees this as a good place to be,” said Michael Brown of the EGE Air Alliance, a group of local governments and business leaders working to bring more flights and passengers to the airport.
A Delta Airlines flight from Minneapolis has also been something of a hit. That flight comes only during the busiest parts of the ski season, but Phillips said the planes arriving so far have been about 80 percent full. That’s well above the average “load factor” of just more than 60 percent.
Turning Things Around
A reasonably successful winter will help turn around a several-year trend of declining passenger numbers at the airport. That decline has several causes, from the lingering effects of the national economic slump to airline consolidation to failure to pursue new flights.
The tide started to turn in 2013, when the air alliance raised enough public and private money to provide a “revenue guarantee” for a new United Airlines summer flight from Houston. That flight — on a somewhat reduced level — was renewed for this summer.
Finding Stable Funding
But alliance members have said for some time now that asking businesses and town councils for annual contributions is no way to run an air program. In the minds of many supporters, the long-term answer is a stable funding source to attract new flights. That probably means a tax of some kind, perhaps a sales tax or lodging tax in order to provide a steady source of income to provide airlines with the revenue guarantees they demand in order to open a new route.
Brown said alliance members have been studying just what kind of proposal to take to voters. And the Eagle County Commissioners on Tuesday will hear a consultant’s presentation about current flights and future options. Brown said that report may help the alliance make some decisions about routes and money.
In Colorado, all tax increases must be approved by voters. That’s why Brown said it’s going to be crucial for the alliance to find a proposal the public can support, then do a thorough job of making the case for it. But that has to happen fairly quickly.
“We want something approved this year, so we can get to work in 2015,” he said.