Air service backers hope for growth

A private plane takes off from the Eagle Airport in Gypsum on Saturday.
Townsend Bessent | |

By the numbers

4: Airlines serving the Eagle County Regional Airport (including United Express, which is actually a separate entity under contract to United Airlines).

11: Cities with routes into the airport in the winter months.

6: Months with at least some ski-season service into Eagle County.

1: International destination, Toronto.

EAGLE COUNTY — After years of declines in flights and tens of thousands of seats lost, the coming ski season’s air service looks about the way it did last season. That could change as soon as the 2015-16 ski season.

The Eagle County Regional Airport was once the state’s second-busiest in the winter months. But an economic slump, combined with changes in the industry and a switch to smaller planes mean fewer planes and passengers arrive now than in the 2007-08 season. Building that service will take some time.

For now, though, it looks like the declines have stopped. Only Air Canada, which started service in the 2013-14 season, is making cuts to its weekend-only flights from Toronto, and those cuts represent only a few flights.

Stability Good Sign

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Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips says this season’s stability is a good sign.

“The routes we have are successful, and the airlines are satisfied,” Phillips said.

While the apparent end of the declines is good news, Vail Valley Partnership CEO Chris Romer said the valley shouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo. People flying into other destinations aren’t coming here.

“There’s pressure from other resorts, especially in Utah,” Romer said. “Even if you’re on track, you need to keep moving forward.”

Forward progress will face competition. Other resort airports are building their flight programs, primarily through revenue guarantees to airlines. Those guarantees — which cover an airline’s potential losses in the first few years of a new route — are commonplace in the business. Most resort areas have some sort of tax-supported funding for those guarantees, which means airport and resort officials are usually hunting down ways to add new routes — and paying customers for resorts. Those customers generally stay longer and spend more while at a resort, so they’re especially valuable.

County Contributions

Air service in the Vail Valley doesn’t work that way. When a new route is investigated, towns, Eagle County and private sources — including Vail Resorts, of course — are asked to contribute to the guarantee fund.

Most recently, Air Canada, which started its Toronto-to-Eagle County winter route without asking for a guarantee in the 2013-14 season, asked for $115,000 in funding to support this season’s flights.

The EGE Air Alliance, a local group dedicated to improving air service into the airport, has also raised about $450,000 the past two years to support a summer United Airlines flight from Houston. The entire guarantee was needed for the flight’s first summer, 2013. This year’s flight didn’t require the entire guarantee amount, which is money the Air Alliance is trying to parlay into another flight.

Alliance Chairman Michael Brown said the idea is to find another route for the 2015-16 ski season. While the money was available at the end of this summer, Brown said that was too late to negotiate another route for the 2014-15 ski season, since those deals are forged many months in advance.

Unsustainable Practice?

While the Alliance, Vail Resorts and county officials are always looking for routes, the practice of seeking funding for each new route won’t last.

Romer, who’s also an Alliance board member, said the public and private groups asked for money have started saying they can’t sustain the current route-at-a-time practice.

“We’ve heard them loud and clear,” Romer said.

The Alliance, along with county officials, has for the past couple of years been working on plans that would establish a steady funding source. That would allow a near-constant effort to find and negotiate new routes.

The plan isn’t set in stone yet, but will almost certainly involve some sort of new tax. That, in turn, will require voter approval, and tax increases are generally a tough sell.

Establishing some sort of special district is a possibility, but Brown said that would be difficult. The most likely possibility is some sort of county-wide sale tax similar to the one that currently funds ECO, the county’s transit and trails systems.

If voters approve whatever proposal lands on the ballot, then money won’t be available until the 2016-17 ski season.

But, Brown said, the work to find new flights will continue.

“The reality is we won’t see automatic growth,” Brown said. “We still have to talk to airlines, tell them we’re here and we’re open for business.”

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

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