Can local airport grow its flight schedules?
EAGLE COUNTY — The winter flight season which recently ended is being hailed as a good one at the Eagle County Regional Airport. Good enough, in fact, that the final numbers may actually show an increase in airline passengers for the season. But more growth is still on the minds of airport officials and backers.
The airport has fought some stiff headwinds for the past several years. A combination of a slowly recovering economy, airline consolidation and a shift toward smaller aircraft has resulted in steady declines in passenger numbers. It’s been some time since the airport was the state’s second-busiest during the winter months.
Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said that while the final numbers aren’t yet available, but preliminary figures indicate the most recent season was better than the 2014-’15 season.
The job now is to build on that. The question, of course, is how to find the best way to complete the task at hand.
The easy answer is to find more flights from more cities. The Montrose Regional Airport — the main air gateway to Telluride — recently announced a brace of new flights from Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles. That announcement came on the heels of news about an increase in winter-season traffic. Overall, passenger traffic at that airport has increased 26 percent during the past two years.
Luring new flights usually requires revenue guarantees to airlines. Montrose, like most regional airports, has a permanent funding source to provide a steady flow of money for those guarantees.
Eagle County doesn’t. Locally, the EGE Air Alliance helps negotiate deals with airlines, then reaches out to local governments and businesses to fund revenue guarantees.
Guarantees are expensive
A summer flight from Houston in the summer of 2013 required a revenue guarantee of more than $400,000. That number has declined during the few years the route has been in service, thanks largely to more people flying in those planes.
On the other hand, two new routes into Eagle County — a weekly American Airlines summer flight from Los Angeles and a winter United Airlines flight from Chicago — were brought in without those guarantees.
“That’s a direct offshoot of the conversations we’ve had with the airlines,” EGE Air Alliance Chairman Michael Brown said.
Those conversations only go so far, though. Adding flights from, say, Charlotte, North Carolina or Washington D.C. will require revenue guarantees. Finding more future routes will require still more money.
The good news seems to be that Vail Resorts and the airlines seem to be able to successfully market non-stop service to the Vail Valley.
“Wherever (airlines) are giving us seats, we’re filling them,” Vail Resorts Senior Manager of Airline Marketing and Sales Gabe Shalley said. United Airlines’ flight from Chicago this ski season was a success, Shalley said, adding that additional service from Miami throughout the season was also successful.
Air Canada hasn’t yet scheduled next season’s flights from Toronto, but Phillips said a brief conversation he had with that airlines’ CEO during the winter was encouraging.
Down to dollars
But there’s still the issue of funding.
Brown said the EGE Air Alliance continues to examine ways to find stable funding sources for those guarantees. One option is some sort of tax, which would require voter approval. Other options include forming some sort of special district — which would also require voter approval for both its creation and its revenue source — and some sort of regional transportation district.
“We’re trying to make progress, and we’d like to figure out options we would pursue this year,” Brown said.
But what the group pursues remains an open question. If some sort of tax increase is identified, then the local backers will have a lot of work to do to convince voters who are likely to see a number of tax questions on the fall ballot.
“We’ve surveyed voters, asking if they know what we’re doing, and we’re seeing year-over-year improvement,” Brown said. “But it’s not to the point of simply laying something out there.”
And, no matter the public’s mood, Brown said the alliance “needs to be cognizant of how much (political) noise is out there in November.”
For now, Phillips said he expects the next ski season’s flight schedule to look much like the one for 2016-’17.
“We had 10 different destinations,” Phillips said. “There’s some talk about potential options, but I expect (the schedule) to be at least as good as last year.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, email@example.com and @scottnmiller.