After decline, airport passenger numbers rising | VailDaily.com

After decline, airport passenger numbers rising

Arrivng passengers crowd the baggage carousel as they wait to collect their luggage Friday at Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum.

EAGLE COUNTY — The Eagle County Regional Airport may be the last sector of the local economy to start recovering from the Great Recession.

Passenger numbers at the airport peaked in 2008, the last year of the boom in the previous decade. That calendar year, about 214,000 people arrived or left on a commercial airplane.

Then came a triple whammy.

The first whammy, of course, was a steep, worldwide economic decline. That crash hit every sector of the local economy, too.

“We’ve got a number of potential markets identified. That’s even more reason to look at our long-term (funding) options.”Michael BrownBoard member, EGE Air Alliance

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The second whammy came even as the national economy — and the local resorts — began to recover. As the nation's airlines tried to remain afloat, those companies consolidated, shedding employees and routes in the process.

In 2008, there were six big carriers at the airport. This winter, there are three main carriers: United, Delta and American, along with weekly service from Air Canada through part of the winter.

The third whammy came with equipment. In 2008, most of the carriers serving the airport used the Boeing 757. That airplane, which can carry about 180 passengers and crew, was once the workhorse of the domestic air fleet, and had enough performance to operate easily at the airport's 6,300-foot elevation.

Boeing hasn't made the 757 in a number of years, and it's leaving airline fleets. In its wake has come higher-performing versions of the Boeing 737, along with an equivalent plane from Europe's Airbus.

Same routes, smaller planes

Newer versions of the 737 have the performance needed to operate out of the local airport, and use less fuel than the 757. But the 737 is a smaller airplane, with a capacity of about 130 passengers and crew.

Those factors combined to create a big decline in the airport's passenger numbers, a trend that started in 2009 and didn't end until 2015. About 162,000 passengers came through the airport that calendar year, which covers the bulk of the 2014-2015 ski season and the first few weeks of the 2015-2016 season.

Eagle County Interim Director of Aviation Alex Everman said the decline finally stopped in 2016. That year showed a 4 percent increase in passenger numbers.

But, given the new realities in the air travel industry, how much more growth is possible.

Michael Brown has for several years served on the board of the EGE Air Alliance, a local group of businesses and governments dedicated to building business at the airport.

Brown said he's optimistic about the future of air service into Eagle County.

That service is important. About one-third of all the Vail Valley's destination guests come in through the airport. Those are the valley's most valuable guests. They travel farther, stay longer and spend more money while they're here.

And, according to surveys, a significant portion of those travelers might look for other vacation destinations without convenient air service to the Vail Valley.

But growing the economic pie at any airport isn't easy.

Big demand, limited supply

There's a lot of demand for service to regional airports and a limited supply of carriers and airplanes. That means airlines ask communities for revenue guarantees for new routes.

It took about $400,000 to guarantee a 2013 summer flight from Houston. That meant the Alliance had to raise money from businesses and governments to cover that cost.

But the Alliance's efforts have paid off, especially since the group shifted its focus from summer to winter flights.

This season, United airlines started a new route from Washington, D.C., and American Airlines began service from Phoenix.

The nation's capitol has long been a strong market for the Vail Valley, but Brown said he expects the Phoenix flight to do something not many other routes do: attract locals.

"I think Phoenix residents and snowbirds here will both use that one," Brown said.

The next step is even more routes.

Brown said the Alliance is looking at cities on the nation's coasts, including Oakland, California and Seattle, as well as service from Charlotte, North Carolina, a major hub for the southeastern part of the country.

An Allegiant Airlines route from Oakland to Eagle County was set to begin this ski season. But, Brown said, that route was shelved for this season because of aircraft and pilot training requirements.

"We're still talking with Allegiant," Brown said. "We'd like to get them here."

But new flights will take new revenue guarantees. Competing airports including Montrose, Gunnison, Steamboat Springs and Jackson, Wyoming, fund those guarantees through dedicated taxes.

Eagle County still depends on contributions, the bulk of which comes from local governments and Vail Resorts.

While Brown remains optimistic about the future of air service into the county, he said at some point, county voters may have to be asked to approve a tax similar to those in place elsewhere.

"We've got a number of potential markets identified," he said. "That's even more reason to look at our long-term (funding) options."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

By the numbers:

214,000: Eagle County Regional Airport passengers in 2008.

162,000: Passengers in 2015.

164,000: Passengers in 2016.

Passenger numbers indicate people arriving or leaving on commercial airline flights.

The full winter airline schedule can be found at http://www.flyvail.com.