Eagle County airport lost seats but gained guests
Airport officials, local groups seek to build service for both guests, locals
By the numbers
14: Cities with winter flights into the Eagle County Regional Airport .
3: Airlines provide service: American, United and Delta.
1.6 percent: Decline from 2018 in available seats into the airport during the first quarter of 2019.
7.7 percent: Increase in passenger numbers over 2018 for the first quarter of 2019.
Source: Eagle County Regional Airport.
VAIL — The Eagle County Regional Airport was once the state’s second-busiest in the winter months. That ended with a combination of an economic slump, airline consolidation and other factors.
Airport officials and local marketing groups have for a decade been working to bring flights — and passengers — back to the area.
There was mixed, but mostly good, news about the first quarter of 2019. The number of available seats into the airport declined 1.6% from the first quarter of 2018. On the other hand, passenger numbers increased 7.7%.
United on the rise
Another trend to watch is the decline in seats available from American Airlines, while United Airlines is increasing its presence.
In his last work for Eagle County, former interim airport director Barry Bratton gave an an update on air service at the April 18 meeting of the Vail Local Marketing District Advisory Council.
Bratton talked about raw numbers, and some of the reasons behind them.
American flights in the first quarter of this year still accounted for more than 53% of the airport’s market share. But United is gaining. American’s market share in that period declined by more than 6% from 2018. United, meanwhile, increased its market share to 33.7% of the passenger traffic at the facility.
Delta Airlines’ market share peaked at 15.2% in the first quarter of 2014, and was 13% in the first quarter of this year.
On average, first-quarter flights into Eagle County average about 2,000 seats per day. Saturdays are the biggest passenger days, with flights capable of carrying about 2,500 people coming into the airport.
The biggest share of flights come from the New York area, including Newark, New Jersey, followed by Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Filling out the calendar
The airport’s first-quarter numbers are a big deal. Bratton noted that roughly two-thirds of the airport’s passengers arrive and leave in that period.
Building service in those other months is a continuing challenge. American recently dropped its once-daily spring and fall service to Eagle County to just Wednesday and Saturday.
Bratton said daily service in those periods would require a 50-seat aircraft with sufficient performance to operate at Eagle County’s roughly 6,300-foot elevation.
Bratton said American doesn’t currently have aircraft like that, adding he’s “not optimistic” that will change any time soon.
Laurie Mullen, chairwoman of the advisory council, asked Bratton how that group could help, whether by advertising and marketing or helping provide “minimum revenue guarantees” to airlines. Those guarantees, provided by communities, essentially ensure airlines can operate without losing money. The guarantees are common in the industry, and other resorts, including Steamboat Springs and Jackson, Wyoming, have specific local taxes to fund them.
Bratton told Mullen that guarantees are useful, but “we don’t like to make them our first marketing tool.”
Bratton told the group that information, specifically about events and promotions, can be a good marketing tool in trying to lure more service to the valley during shoulder seasons.
“We also hear consistently that airlines love Vail,” Bratton said. “They know about us.” And, he added, airline executives keep track of local airport news.
“When I mention a story in the Vail Daily, they’ve already read it,” Bratton said. “They need information that’s not readily available.”
But, Bratton said, there are factors that revenue or marketing can’t help.
“We do have terrain, and temperatures that puts a strain on equipment,” Bratton said. “Not all aircraft can operate efficiently or profitably in this environment.”
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll was Gypsum’s town manager for more than 20 years, and told the group building service is a priority for the county government.
“We’ve really ramped up our efforts,” Shroll said. “We’ve watched emplanments go down for a decade — now (as county manager) it’s a passion of mine.” Shroll added that building service at the airport has to work for both guests and locals.
Mullen said the marketing district — which is funded by a lodging tax in Vail — is eager to help.
“We have a huge asset there,” Mullen said. “We want to be there to market it.”
Gypsum residents have been running sump pumps to address high groundwater issues.