EAGLE – Eagle County Regional Airport is at a disadvantage when compared to competing airports around the state — and everyone is responsible for its success.
That was the message from EGE Air Alliance when the group presented an update to Eagle County commissioners on Tuesday and asked the county to consider increasing its level of support along with the rest of the community.
Commissioners said they are currently in the budget process and would keep the request in mind.
The Alliance is a public-private entity dedicated to ensuring the long-term business health of the airport, and consequently a big piece of the valley’s tourism economy.
“We’re asking $200,000 in support, which is equal to the pledge amount that Eagle County provided back when we secured the first summer flight from Dallas in the 2003,” said Air Alliance Chairman Mike Brown. “Our total fund-raising goal for 2014 is $760,000 in hard dollars — not pledges.”
The money would be used for revenue guarantees, which are generally required to get airlines to try servicing a new location. An airport or community promises a certain amount of money in the first years of service to ensure that the airline does not suffer a financial loss while trying the new market. If the market proves successful, the airline will continue the service on its own without the revenue guarantees. For example, the Dallas summer flight Brown referred to continues today, operating without the community revenue guarantee since 2007.
Summer service to Houston started this year and Brown said finding the revenue guarantee to continue that service in 2014 is a priority. Air Canada’s Toronto service starting this winter is a rarity in that no revenue guarantee was required. However, in addition to maintaining the new Houston summer flight, the alliance wants to continue expanding service at Eagle County airport and that will require much more community support.
Competing airports, such as Aspen, Montrose and Jackson Hole, have dedicated funding sources to help bring more seats and new markets to their communities, while Eagle County Regional Airport does not. For comparison, Eagle County airport’s marketing equated to $2.74 per available seat in 2012 while Gunnison/Crested Butte Regional Airport spent $29.98, Montrose spent $21.70 and Steamboat spent $11.11 per seat. Aspen’s program is privately funded, so those contributions are unknown.
“With our competition already having solid, sustainable funding models, we are at a crossroads with our air service program,” Brown said. “We must get serious as a community or we will be left in the dust by our competitor resort communities.”
Brown said EGE is on the right track. Community participation in the EGE Air Alliance increased three-fold this year, from approximately 20 participants to 65 local businesses and municipal program supporters.
“We want to bring that number to 100 this year,” Brown said. “Our biggest goal in 2014 is to maintain and possibly expand service dates and markets.”
“Texas has the highest percentage of second-home owners in the valley, is among the top three states for out-of-state visitors to the valley and Houston serves as a hub for United Airlines, which allows other feeder markets to connect to the direct flight to EGE,” Brown said.
The Boeing 757 is being phased out and that presents an additional challenge to the airport.
“The 757 is a rocket ship and it’s the greatest thing to happen to this airport and that’s about to change,” said Kent Myers of Air Planners, a consultant with EGE Air Alliance.
The 757 has been virtually the only long-distance airliner to come to Eagle County during the past 20 years or so, primarily because of its performance at high-elevation airports. Smaller planes, such as the A319 and Boeing 737, now have the performance to operate from high-elevation runways, which means airlines will use more of the smaller planes in coming years.
The switch to smaller planes has raised worries about losing available seats into Eagle County. That’s one reason the Alliance has put new emphasis on building summer service.
Brown said the new Toronto winter flight may help that group in its efforts.
“Whether it’s winter or summer, an alliance effort or a Vail Resorts/airport effort, every flight helps reverse the decline in enplanements, and it’s great to see that,” Brown said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott N. Miller contributed to this report.