Eagle County airport adding holiday-season flights from Salt Lake City | VailDaily.com

Eagle County airport adding holiday-season flights from Salt Lake City

American Airlines announced this week it is expanding winter season service from Chicago. In addition, Delta Airlines is bringing Christmas holiday-season service from Salt Lake City.
Justin Q. McCarty | Daily file photo |

By the numbers

• 150,000: Approximate number of ski-season passengers into Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in the 2016 — ‘17 ski season.

• 129,000: Approximate number of ski-season passengers flying into the Eagle County Regional Airport in the 2016 — ‘17 ski season.

• 214,000: Full-year passenger numbers for Eagle County in 2008.

• 4.2 percent: Decline in 2017 commercial emplanements at Eagle County.

Sources: The Aspen Times, Eagle County

GYPSUM — Kip Turner is new to his job as Eagle County Aviation Director, but he’s bullish on prospects for the Eagle County Regional Airport.

That bullishness was bolstered this week with the announcement of both new and expanded service into the airport in the coming winter season. Perhaps the biggest news comes from Delta Airlines. According to a Thursday afternoon news release from the airport, Delta has added a Christmas-holiday seasonal flight to Eagle County from Salt Lake City.

That flight — the first from Salt Lake City since the 1994-’95 ski season — will run daily from Dec. 21 through Jan. 7 on a 69-passenger regional jet. According to the release, the flight schedule could expand in future seasons if there’s adequate demand.

American Airlines service from Phoenix, which began for the 2016-’17 ski season, is expanding for the coming ski season.

That route will have daily flights from Dec. 15 through Jan. 7. There will be flights from Thursday through Monday from Jan. 11 to Feb. 12. Daily flights from Phoenix will run Feb. 15 through April 2.

Mike Brown is a member of the EGE Air Alliance Board of Directors. The alliance is a nonprofit group made up of businesses and local governments and seeks to expand commercial service into the airport. Brown said the first season of the Phoenix flight was considered a big success, for both valley visitors and locals seeking a sunny weekend getaway.

Flights “were affordable for visitors and locals alike,” Brown said. “It was a real homerun.”

Expanded Chicago service

In addition to the Salt Lake City and Phoenix flights, both United Airlines and American Airlines are providing more seats on flights to Eagle County from Chicago.

American will add a second daily flight from Chicago from Dec. 15 through Jan. 7. That’s in addition to weekend flights from Jan. 12 through April 1. United will fly on Saturdays and Sundays to Eagle County from Chicago from Jan. 13 to April 1.

Turner said those new and expanded routes are good signs for the airport.

“I think we have a lot of opportunity for increased growth,” Turner said.

Still, it’s probably going to be some time before passenger numbers approach the peak year of 2008.

The airport is still recovering from a decline in passenger numbers that began in 2009, when the national economic slump was in full force. Since 2008, commercial passenger numbers have exceeded 200,000 only twice, in 2008 and 2010. Those numbers bottomed out in 2015, when there were about 162,000 commercial passengers for the full year.

But full-year numbers include a number of relatively fallow months. The majority of commercial passenger traffic comes from January through March and December.

Still, the airport has fairly steady summer service now — twice per week from Houston on United Airlines and daily service from Dallas on American Airlines. The airport also has everyday service from Denver on United Express airlines.

American announced in May that it would bring three-season service to Eagle County from Dallas.

What the competition does

Eagle County’s ski-season passenger numbers were overtaken in 2014-’15 by the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.

Beyond bragging rights, those comparisons can be important.

Brown said the alliance looks at Aspen, of course, but also pays close attention to commercial traffic at airports including Steamboat Springs, Montrose, Gunnison and Jackson, Wyoming.

“It’s important to look at the comparisons,” Brown said. “What are they doing that we aren’t? And what are we doing that they aren’t?”

The “what are they doing?” question regarding other airports involves funding. Most regional airports use what’s called “minimum revenue guarantees” to lure new routes. Those guarantees are negotiated between airlines and airports. If passenger revenues on a route don’t meet that minimum, then local airports pay the difference.

As a flight becomes established, those guarantees often shrink, or are dropped altogether.

Turner said much of Eagle County’s existing service comes without those revenue guarantees.

But those guarantees, especially for new routes, are standard practice in the industry. Many regional airports use some sort of public funding to pay for those guarantees. In Eagle County, the alliance depends on annual donations from businesses and local governments.

The alliance has long discussed ways to find its own stable funding source. But, Brown said, that’s a “very long-term” discussion.

“We want to do something acceptable to the community,” Brown said. “It’s a discussion you have to bring along deliberately — you need consensus.”

With or without public funding of revenue guarantees, Turner is optimistic about the airport’s near-term prospects.

After years of declines and so-so passenger numbers, Turner said he believes “we’re going to see a different kind of trend. I’ve got a very positive outlook.”

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