Eagle airport gears up for busy weekend
GYPSUM — Visitors who fly into the valley fall into two relatively distinct groups: those who buy airline tickets, and those who come and go on private jets. The 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships seems to have drawn visitors from the latter camp.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve seen a big bump (from the Championships),” Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said. “And even if the business was out there, airlines can’t just add flights — they don’t have planes sitting around waiting to be used.”
Solid numbers from February won’t be available until mid-March or so, but Phillips said just looking at airport activity shows the place has been busy, but not remarkably so, during the World Championships so far.
On the other hand, the Vail Valley Jet Center, which serves guests who fly in and out on private jets, has seen a noticeable boost.
Jet Center General Manager Paul Gordon said that facility has seen roughly 14 percent more flights than the first two weeks of February 2014. Whether that’s due to the Championships is anyone’s guess right now, although Gordon guessed that much of the increased traffic at the Jet Center has been due to people coming for the ski races.
Gordon didn’t have a breakdown of how many flights came from outside of the U.S., but he said perhaps 50 flights — mostly from Mexico and Canada — have used the U.S. Customs desk at the Jet Center.
While it’s hard to tell just why people have flown in on private aircraft, the fact that more flights arrived is good news, Gordon said.
“The first part of February is usually pretty quiet,” he said. “But we had a lot of planes to park last weekend, and starting Friday we have just a ton of (aircraft) coming in.”
This weekend, of course, is Presidents Day weekend, one of the high points of the ski season. That means both the private and commercial operations at the airport are gearing up for the busiest stretch of the season.
On the commercial side, Phillips said passenger numbers seem to have finally leveled out after a long slide that began in 2009. Since then, a combination of a shaky national economy, airline consolidation and a gradual shift to smaller airplanes has taken a toll on passenger numbers.
Phillips said passenger numbers for calendar 2014 — which accounts for portions of two ski seasons — were down about 0.5 percent from calendar 2013. But, he added, a massive weekend snowstorm in early February cost the airport a number of flights, carrying about 3,000 passengers.
Phillips said he and other local representatives continue to talk to airlines about adding flights for next ski season. But, he added, that isn’t going to happen unless the valley’s voters approve a tax proposal likely to appear on the November ballot.
For a few years now, the EGE Air Alliance, a group of business and local government representatives, has been trying to find a way to provide a stable source of funding to essentially subsidize the early years of a new airline route.
Airlines don’t normally add new routes without communities agreeing to cover the carriers’ losses, at least for a few years.
Even Air Canada, which usually doesn’t ask for flight subsidies, asked for one to ensure a second season of a flight from Toronto to Eagle County.
That flight, by the way, has already brought more people to the valley this season than it did in its entire seasonal run in 2013-14.
At the moment, those flight subsidies have been covered on a case-by-case basis. Backers of a new, publicly-funded system, argue that a stable source of perhaps $1.5 million per year would enable local groups to pursue up to three new flights at a time. If a flight from, say, Phoenix to Eagle County required less subsidies in its third year than in its first, then available funding could be directed to finding new routes.
If a tax proposal does pass in November, then Phillips said it’s possible new flights could be added in time for the 2015-16 season.
For now, though, people working at the airport are gearing up for constant action through the end of March.
A new Hallmark Channel movie set in Vail, starring Lacey Chabert of “Mean Girls,” will make its debut on Saturday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. EST.