EAGLE COUNTY — Mike Brumbaugh had to be convinced, but now he’s an avid supporter of an effort to bring more flights to the county airport.
Brumbaugh, owner of Venture Sports, is a board member of the EGE Air Alliance, a private group formed last year to bring more commercial air service to the valley. That effort started with bringing a United Airlines flight from Houston this summer.
That flight has only been coming to Eagle County since June 27, but early signs are pointing to a successful effort. The plane was nearly full the first few days the route ran, and current “passenger loads” — meaning seats already booked — have the planes about half-full until the end of August. Given the trend in summer travel to book shortly before leaving, that leaves plenty of room for growth.
Better yet, American Airlines’ daily summer flight from Dallas is carrying about the same number of passengers it did last year, which means many of the people coming from Houston are likely to be new summer visitors.
“I’m delightfully surprised — it’s meeting or exceeding expectations,” Brumbaugh said of the Houston flight. Others involved in bringing the flight to Eagle agreed.
“We’re pretty happy overall,” Eagle County Director of Aviation Greg Phillips said. “The rest of the summer is panning out well.”
Convincing an airline takes more than a few well-worded letters, though. It takes cash, and quite a bit of it, from local communities that want service. That cash covers an airline’s operating losses in case a flight doesn’t meet expectations.
For the Houston flight, the EGE Air Alliance raised most of the roughly $400,000 required for the revenue guarantee from local governments. But businesses put in more than $150,000 of the total. In past years, a relative handful of businesses made those contributions, but the list of contributors was quite a lot longer for the Houston flight. Venture Sports had for years let other businesses make pledges.
Brumbaugh acknowledged that he’d long believed that “people are coming anyway — why should I have to pay?”
Then he heard the Alliance’s pitch, which goes something like this: “Everyone, from the dentists to outfitters to ski areas, benefits from bringing in more tourists on non-stop flights. Those flights don’t just happen, they take a lot of work, and we need your financial help to help ensure airlines continue to come to Eagle County.”
Brumbaugh and other Alliance board members made that pitch early and often. It’s a pitch they continue to make.
Michael Brown, Alliance board chairman, said there’s a “constant call to the business community” for support. That’s because the airline business into Eagle County will need constant nurturing, due at least in part to changes coming to the business. The Boeing 757, which holds nearly 200 passengers, has been the main airplane flying into Eagle County just about since commercial planes started arriving in any numbers in the 1990s. Those planes are gradually being retired — they aren’t made any more — and are being replaced with various versions of the Boeing 737 or the similarly-sized Airbus A320. Those planes generally hold 50 or 60 fewer passengers than the 757. That means even if airlines maintain the same routes into Eagle County, the planes they fly will carry fewer passengers.
Phillips said that might actually be an opportunity, particularly on more successful routes. Airlines might decide to offer multiple flights from those destinations if the passenger numbers justify it, he said.
It might be somewhat easier to make an economic case for bringing smaller aircrafts into the airport.
Meanwhile, the air alliance is looking to bring more flights to the county, and a successful flight from Houston can help make the case that this is a place people want to visit. But more flights will require more revenue guarantees.
Brown said the Alliance is working on building its business base, but also investigating a more stable source of funding — taxes of some sort. Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte and Telluride — through the airport in Montrose — all have some sort of tax-supported revenue guarantee program, Brown said, adding that the Alliance could bring a proposal to county voters as soon as 2014.
If the revenue guarantee program is ultimately successful, there will be a constant search for new business for the airport because those guarantees only support flights for a certain amount of time. The Dallas flight, and others, were once supported by local money but are now self-supporting. Gabe Shalley, who manages airline programs for Vail Resorts, said revenue guarantees generally last from two to four years on any given routes.
That means the Houston flight, while promising right now, is just the start of a far more ambitious plan.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2939 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.