Airport development is economic development
Thankfully, election season is behind us. Congratulations to those elected to office – your work begins now. And thank you to those who threw a hat in the ring: Your efforts to improve our community are appreciated. Please stay engaged and offer your expertise.
Although the elections are behind us and we don’t have campaign signs dotting the landscape (at least for a short while, until the next election), there was one sign that had great validity. That sign, from Jon Stavney, said “Airport development is economic development.”
It’s not just our local politicians who recognize this. Sen. Mark Udall recently said: “Colorado’s regional airports form important links for businesses and travelers throughout the state. Improving Colorado’s transportation network is one of the most important things we can do to support our local communities and local businesses.”
Stavney and Udall are both correct. Economic development (which we’ve defined as increased cash flow into the community) in any community traditionally starts with the airport. Airports support local business and support our local community. The Colorado Division of Aeronautics conducts a statewide economic impact study every five years that includes all commercial and general aviation airports in Colorado. They break it down to overall economic impact by airport and, even further, into other sub-impact groups.
The last time this study was done was in 2008. You may be surprised to learn that the study demonstrates that the Eagle County Regional Airport has a $982 million impact, with visitor spending estimated at $2,070 per visitor. That’s a significant impact on our economy.
Unfortunately, we are moving in the wrong direction with our airport.
Over the last five years we have lost 20 percent of the available seats into the Vail-Eagle County Regional Airport. In the winter of 2007-08 (the peak year for enplanements) there were 273,000 available inbound seats. This winter there are 212,000 inbound seats, with a 34,000-seat decrease from last winter.
Despite the decrease in available seats, the airport has held up in some challenging times. The airline business environment has changed, resulting in fewer airlines and fewer aircraft due to consolidation of major legacy carriers. The recession and higher fuel prices also had major impacts on air travel to the airport. Nationally, many – most – airports had very large decreases (35 percent) in 2008-09, and while flights have slowly come back, they are still down an average of 27 percent.
I’ve mentioned before that continued growth of the Eagle County Regional Airport should be near the top of our regional economic development goals. Increased flights and service into the airport supports our tourism economy, creates jobs in our community, drives sales tax collections in the western part of the county and makes the Vail Valley a more attractive location for second homeowners and location neutral businesses.
Despite the benefits and positive impacts that our airport offers to the community, we are woefully underfunded compared to our neighboring communities. For the purpose of comparison, let’s look at the community investment in flight service into some of our neighboring resort- based communities:
• Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport: $29.78 of community funding per available seat.
• Montrose County Regional Airport/Telluride Airport: $21.70 of community funding per available seat.
• Yampa Valley Regional Airport (Steamboat): $11.11 of community investment per available seat.
• Jackson Hole Regional Airport: $6.00 of community funding per available seat.
• Eagle County Regional Airport: $2.63 of community funding per available seat.
Most resort community funding of air service is a public-private partnership (public funding via either sales tax or county support and private funding coming from the business community). Public-private partnerships are an effective business model to ensure flights into our regional airport, as both the municipalities and business community benefit.
Our public-private partnership, the Eagle Air Alliance, depends primarily on the support of key municipal stakeholders, but is woefully under supported by our business community. Only about 20 businesses historically support the Eagle Air Alliance’s efforts to drive increased air service to our airport.
Unfortunately, the lack of business community funding and support for flight service into the Eagle County Regional Airport costs us a significant opportunity this winter season as we lost the chance to be the only Colorado ski resort community to have a direct flight from Washington, D.C. (Dulles International).
We are working to revamp and increase both public and private support of the Eagle Air Alliance in order to grow service at the Eagle County Regional Airport, which would benefit our local and business communities and in turn increase the cash flow into Eagle County. As noted earlier, that’s economic development.
What can your business do to help? If you benefit from air service into the Eagle County Regional Airport and our other efforts to drive tourism spending to benefit the business community, get off the sidelines and join the Partnership. If you are already a member, tell your neighbors to join to help us do more here in the valley.
Chris Romer is executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership.