EAGLE COUNTY — A local group working to bolster air service into the Eagle County Regional Airport didn’t take much time to rest on the laurels of a successfully attracted, then successfully filled summer flight from Houston. The group is now working on ways to build on that first project.
The group, the EGE Air Alliance, is just starting a new effort to find funding for 2014 operations. It’s an ambitious plan. The group hopes to raise just more than $700,000 in private and government funding — a big boost from the $400,000 raised this year to provide a revenue guarantee for the United Airlines summer flight from Houston. Those guarantees are common in the industry and assure airlines they won’t lose money as they establish new routes.
The proposed funding for 2014 will assure another season of flights from Houston. The additional money is targeted toward the future and how to put the local airport’s flight program on a competitive playing field with other regional airports.
Seats available on commercial flights into Eagle County have been declining for the past several years, due to factors including the national economy, consolidation in the airline industry and a shift from higher-capacity Boeing 757s to lower-capacity Boeing 737s and similar aircraft. The alliance’s job is to rebuild that base, and it started with a summer flight.
That flight was a success. More than 3,000 new visitors came to the valley from Houston, and initial surveys indicate those people spent $7.4 million on everything from lodging to car rentals to fishing trips.
Michael Brown, chairman of the Alliance’s volunteer board of directors, said he expects the group to spend some of the additional money raised for next year on research into what a long-term program might look like. No firm ideas have been floated yet, but possibilities include some sort of county-wide sales tax or, perhaps, a new business license program for county businesses.
Brown said he hopes the Alliance has a firm plan ready by early next year, in case political work is needed to support a proposal for a new tax, which must be approved by voters.
Fellow board member John Shipp — owner of restaurants including the Dusty Boot locations in Eagle and Beaver Creek — said that a long-term view is crucial, both for the tourism industry and local residents.
Looking for more support
Having more flights to and from more locations is a “quality of life” issue for local residents, as well as an economic driver, Shipp said.
But taking another step in funding donations is going to require more work on the part of Alliance members and contributors. Local governments will be asked to increase their contributions in 2014, and Alliance members hope for a significant boost in the number of private businesses involved in the program.
Before this year, only about 20 businesses participated in the program. Once the fund-raising drive for the Houston flight was announced, more than 60 businesses contributed. Alliance members hope to drive business participation above 100 companies for 2014.
The Sebastian Hotel in Vail was one of the contributors to this year’s effort. Hotel general manager Lance Thompson said he and other executives at Timbers Resorts — which runs The Sebastian, as well as lodges in Steamboat Springs and Aspen — believe good air service is a responsibility for the entire community to support.
“It’s a convenience for our guests to be able to fly into regional airports ... and we use it, too.”
People like Thompson, as well as Alliance board members, will be asked to help recruit more businesses into the program. While Shipp said he believes board members need to start working the phones and talking to business groups, Thompson said he favors a more subtle approach.
Educating the community
“My approach is that once people understand the importance and have more education, we’ll have more participants,” Thompson said. “Our role is to help educate.”
While working for the future is a close second to maintaining the Houston flight on the Alliance’s priority list, there’s always the possibility that another summer flight might be available either later this year or early in 2014. Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer noted that the Houston flight didn’t materialize until early this year. If another flight, say one from Chicago, is a possibility, expect the Alliance to try to raise even more money to provide revenue guarantees for that service, too.