Airport numbers still slipping | VailDaily.com

Airport numbers still slipping

GYPSUM — The Eagle County Regional Airport greets tens of thousands of guests every year. But it used to welcome more visitors than it does today.

Since 2011, there has been a 21 percent decline in passenger enplanements — the number of people boarding commercial aircraft. During that time, though, the town of Vail has set several records in both winter and summer sales tax collections, a good measure of tourist activity.

With more people coming to the valley, why have airport numbers declined?

Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said there are a few factors at work, including airline consolidation, airlines switching to smaller planes and ticket cost.

In 2008, six airlines flew to Eagle County during the ski season. Today there are three major carriers. An Air Canada flight from Toronto to Gypsum runs fewer than 10 times per ski season.

In addition to fewer carriers, airlines are switching their fleets to smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Since commercial air service began in earnest in the 1990s, airlines' plane of choice for Eagle County was the Boeing 757. Those planes carry about 185 and have the engine performance to operate easily at the airport's 6,300-foot elevation.

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Once the workhorse of most domestic airline fleets, the 757 hasn't been manufactured for years. Airlines have largely switched over to newer versions of the long-running Boeing 737. Those planes carry about 125 people, and today have better-performing engines that can operate at Eagle County as easily as their older, less-efficient 757 counterparts.

Ticket prices

Then there's the matter of cost.

Using both airlines' own websites to research a trip between March 12 and March 19, a round-trip flight from Dallas to Denver on Southwest Airlines is priced at $372. A round trip on American Airlines from Dallas to Eagle County is $705.

Phillips said diligent shoppers can often find deals on flights into Eagle County. Still, he said, it's easy to understand why travel shoppers would fly into Denver, then either rent a car or take a van service to the slopes — at least until they discover the potential perils of winter driving on Interstate 70.

That's where Vail's proximity to Denver is a disadvantage to the airport. If traffic and the weather cooperate — which can be a big if this time of year — it takes a bit more than two hours to drive between Denver and Vail. The trip from Denver to Aspen by car takes more than four hours. The length of that drive makes Aspen's air service more attractive to travelers, Phillips said.

Most mountain resort airports also have public funding in place to finance revenue guarantees for airlines to create new routes. Eagle County doesn't have that mechanism and relies instead on the private EGE Air Alliance. That group uses a combination of contributions from local governments, Vail Resorts and other businesses to fund airline revenue guarantees. The last big-ticket route was a United Airlines summer flight from Houston. That flight will begin its fourth season this year and has required progressively smaller revenue-guarantee payments every year.

Airport backers have talked for several years about presenting some sort of tax increase to county voters to create an air-service fund. So far, though, no proposal has been presented.

While regional airports around the country face similar problems luring airlines, Phillips and his staff continues to plan to upgrade and expand the commercial passenger facilities at Eagle County.

"We're handling the numbers we have right now really well," Phillips said.

Still, the fact that many winter flights arrive at about the same time means when the terminal is crowded, it's really crowded.

Opportunities exist

While there are a number of headwinds facing those trying to build the airport's passenger numbers, Gabe Shalley, Vail Resorts' manager of airline programs, said there are opportunities, too, particularly in the airlines' move to smaller planes.

If smaller planes carry roughly the same number of passengers as the big ones, the smaller planes are more full. Airlines look at the percentage of seats filled as an indicator of a routes success.

The move to smaller planes also gives airlines flexibility, Shalley said.

"We're now at a point in time where we're seeing airlines coming back to us and saying, 'We've got an extra plane for 21 days over Christmas,'" she added. "We're seen as a good incremental use for those assets."

An extra route or two over Christmas is welcome, of course. But a daily route during ski season would quickly build the airport's enplanement numbers.

Phillips said a new, daily flight over the roughly 15 weeks of ski season could bring in the neighborhood of 9,000 passengers every season.

"We can start building," Phillips said, adding that if those smaller planes start flying at 80 to 85 percent of capacity, that's when airlines start looking at more flights from a city or adding service from a new city.

"We continue to talk to the airlines," Phillips said. "We have a couple of things up our sleeves now, and we hope to unveil some new offerings for next winter."

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

By the numbers:

158,450: 2015 commercial airline enplanements* at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

214,715: 2008 enplanements.

217,648: 2014** enplanements at the Aspen Pitkin County Airport.

90,630: 2014 enplanements at the Montrose Regional Airport, the main air portal for Telluride.

*An enplanement is a person getting on a commercial aircraft. Total passenger numbers at resort airports are double the enplanement figure.

**The most recent year for which statistics are available.