EAGLE COUNTY — The winter flight schedule into the Eagle County Regional Airport was announced Wednesday. The coming season will see a slight drop in available seats, but more of those seats might have passengers in them.
Changes to the coming season’s schedule include expanding some service during specific times, as well as regularly scheduled service from Dec. 19 and March 31.
Delta will expand its service from both Minneapolis and Atlanta, but only at certain times of the season. The Minneapolis route will have more airplanes during Christmas week, and the airline will add a second, Saturday-only flight from Atlanta from mid-February through the end of March, covering both Presidents Day weekend and spring break crowd.
Another big change will come from American Airlines, which is changing the type of airplane it brings to the airport. It will fly the Airbus 319 on routes from Dallas and Los Angeles this winter.
Airlines have flown the Boeing 757 since the 1990s. Back then, that plane was about the only one in the commercial fleet that had the right combination of passenger capacity and outright performance needed to fly out of Eagle County, especially in the summer.
Since then, the smaller Boeing 737 — the workhorse of the domestic airline fleet — has been improved dramatically.
Eagle County Director of Aviation Greg Phillips said looking at photos of older and newer 737s shows one major difference, “The engines on the new ones are just huge,” he said. Those new engines are also more quiet and more fuel-efficient, too, he added. That means the 737 — along with the similar Airbus A319 — now has the performance to operate well from Eagle County.
We’ll see more of the smaller aircraft coming to Eagle County, since domestic airlines are gradually retiring their 757s, which are no longer in production.
The change in aircraft will mean fewer available seats — the 757 carries about 190 passengers, while the smaller planes carry between 140 and 160. But, Phillips said, having the option to use a smaller, more efficient plane could tempt airlines to bring more flights to Eagle County.
“Load factor” — the number of occupied seats on a flight — is one of the most important measurements in the airline industry. Phillips said putting 120 people on a plane with 150 seats gives a greater “load factor” than putting the same number of people on a plane that seats 190. Putting the same number of people on smaller planes could be an incentive for airlines to bring more flights to the county, Phillips said.
And more flights, at the right times, are just what local businesses want.
In a release about the winter schedule, Jim Kellen, director of sales and marketing for Beaver Creek, noted the importance of airline access to the valley.
“The way the airlines are carefully looking at and fine-tuning schedules to provide more capacity at peak times is a testament to the strength of our airline partnerships and the growth of the market.”
The Atlanta and Minneapolis flights may be proof of that statement.
Phillips said people in Eagle County have long viewed Minneapolis as a prime market for skiers. But during the past few years, service has dropped from daily to weekly on that route, part of the reason the total number of airline seats coming into Eagle County has declined since the national economy slumped in 2008.
Adding more capacity may be a sign that the skier market is regaining some strength, Phillips said. Overall, airline travel has been growing during the past couple of years, he added.
“I think we’re going to have a great winter — we’re excited about it,” Phillips said. “Of course, we’re counting on good snow, too.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.