GYPSUM — The cookie-bakers at Beaver Creek threw a few extra batches into the ovens this morning to keep up a tradition at the Eagle County Regional Airport — providing cookies to the first passengers arriving on a new flight. These cookies — along with other welcoming goodies — will go to passengers arriving from Canada.
The airport today welcomes its first international flight in more than 20 years — an Air Canada flight from Toronto. The new flight was announced earlier this year but is the result of many months of work.
Gabe Shalley, who manages Vail Resorts’ air service program, said Vail Resorts and local officials have been in talks with Air Canada officials for between 18 months and two years. The result of those conversations is a weekly, ski-season flight from Toronto, Canada’s busiest airport that begins today.
That first plane will be about 70 percent booked, “not bad for week one,” Shalley said. Other flights in December are filling up, as are flights in February. January reservations are being promoted with a $515 round-trip fare.
The Toronto flight came to Eagle County without the revenue guarantees domestic carriers usually require to start a new route. Vail Resorts is providing marketing support, Shalley said, but that’s it.
On the other hand, that marketing support is significant and includes everything from billboards to email blasts to Air Canada’s frequent flyers.
The important thing, for several reasons, is getting significant numbers of passengers into the Eagle County-bound flights. The main reason, of course, is that fuller airplanes make it worth an airline adding a flight to its schedule. The people who come to the resorts are always welcome, too.
Building air service
But there’s a bigger picture.
“It’s important for every flight to be successful,” Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said, adding that successful flights show other airlines that coming here is worth their while. But successful routes can take time to develop.
“Word’s slow to get out,” Phillips said. “It often takes a while — that’s why you advertise as much as possible.”
Building air service is crucial, too. Since 2007, a combination of airline mergers, eliminating routes and other factors have taken 90,000 available seats from the airport’s winter service offerings. The same thing has been happening at other resort airports — Aspen being a notable exception. That means there’s intense competition among resort airports to lure more flights from more cities.
Possible summer flights
Successful winter service might also help encourage airlines to consider summer season flights.
Summer service has been the prime mission of the EGE Air Alliance, a group of local businesses and governments. That group this year raised enough money to pay for a revenue guarantee for a summer flight from Houston by United Airlines.
Michael Brown, Air Alliance board chairman, said that group wasn’t directly involved in helping bring the Toronto flight to Eagle County. But, he added, several people who work with the Alliance played a role in getting the flight.
Brown said a successful new winter flight could create a “ripple effect” for summer service.
“It probably puts other airlines on notice that we have a full-service airport here,” Brown said. “It creates awareness in the market.”
That awareness spans the industry, consumers and, ultimately, people who live here.
And, Brown said, while bringing tourists to the valley is the primary goal of building air service, local residents will also benefit from more flights to more cities.
“I live in Gypsum, and my back deck overlooks the airport,” Brown said. “It’s amazing to think that I could get in my car, drive down the hill and up the street to get on a plane that would take me to Canada. ... Having a full-service airport practically in my neighborhood is remarkable.”