Industry changes will affect flights to Eagle County airport | VailDaily.com

Industry changes will affect flights to Eagle County airport

CVR Eagle Airport PU 12-21-06

EAGLE, Colorado – Just as the Eagle County Regional Airport is finishing up its third-best summer ever, it looks like there will be fewer flights this winter season.

A merger between Delta and Northwest airlines means there won’t be nonstop service from Minneapolis/St. Paul and Detroit. And consultant Kent Myers expects the number of available seats to drop slightly in the 2011 and 2012 calendar years.

The drop is the result of changes among the old-line airlines, Myers said. A combination of mergers, labor costs and the international economic slump have left just four “legacy” airlines in the country.

At the moment, the commercial flights coming into the airport all come from the big airlines – although the daily United Express flight is actually run by a regional airline.

While a decrease in the number of seats available sounds scary, Myers said even winter flights are rarely more than 70 percent full, on average. Summer flights carry fewer passengers on average.

“Should we have 360,000 available seats? I don’t know,” Myers said.

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And Chris Jarnot, chief operating officer at Vail Mountain, said skiers and boarders will still be able to get to local resorts even with fewer planes flying into the airport.

“There are about 20 flights a day to Denver from Minneapolis,” Jarnot said. Passengers on those flights can either catch the United Express flight to Eagle County, catch a van or rent a car, he said.

And the loss of service from Minneapolis is being partially offset by American Airlines, which has added another flight to Eagle County from Miami.

The big airlines’ evolution affects the rest of the industry, and changes can be lightning-fast.

Just a few weeks ago Aspen was hit with news that it could lose as many as 30 percent of its available seat for the coming season when Delta and Frontier announced they wouldn’t fly there this ski season.

Most of those flights came back within a few days, when United announced it would beef up its service and Frontier announced it would continue to serve Aspen after all.

Local officials need to be able to adapt to those changes, and to try to find a way to cover demand for service across the entire calendar, Myers said.

“We have great service for seven months a year, at best,” Myers said.

That’s why “low cost” airlines such as Jet Blue are potentially attractive future clients for the airport. Those airlines are now starting to acquire jets such as the Boeing 757, which does virtually all the long-haul flying into and out of Eagle County.

One of those airlines, offering cheap flights to popular destinations, could be a hit with locals.

“If you had a $99 flight to Vegas it would be full,” Commissioner Sara Fisher said.

Any new airline that brings jets to Eagle County would likely ask for revenue guarantees, by which the community pays if a particular route doesn’t make the kind of money the airline requires.

Locally, the Eagle County Air Alliance has deals with airlines for several routes.

While those guarantees are common, Jarnot said the long-term goal is to get air service that stands on its own.

“Whatever we do, it’s got to be sustainable for the airlines,” he said.