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More summer flights on tap

Veronica Whitney
The main enterance to the Eagle County Regional Airport on Saturday October 5, 2002.
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The county commissioners, in an attempt to bring the flights and increase airline competition, have agreed to subsidize the flights with an initial advance of $150,000. More money could come from other public and private entities, and the county is ready to match contributions dollar for dollar, said Eagle County Administrator Jack Ingstad.

The money, Ingstad said, would guarantee the airlines a number of seats from June through September. The arrangement would bring at least a daily flight or more from cities including Chicago, Dallas and Houston, Ingstad said.

“These summer flights are critical to our economic development,” Ingstad said. “There’s a real opportunity to capture summer business. We expect a number of entities in the community to come up with more money. I think we will have at least $300,000.”

The commissioners also agreed to hire Kent Myers of Airplanners LLC, a company that develops air services to small community airports in the United States and Canada, to negotiate with the airlines, coordinate ticket pricing, identify key times to offer Internet-only fares and last-minute excursion fares and coordinate alliance opportunities with major lodging, property management companies, chamber of commerce and business organizations.

“Some people fly to Denver and drive up, so that limits the convention travel,” said Myers, who develop the first commercial service into Eagle County Regional Airport. “More choice in flights will lower the prize of the tickets. We’re looking at more than one city, but we’ll have at least one major hub. When we first started the winter program we had to struggle to get passengers to come.”

Major airlines to be contacted are American Airlines, Delta and Northwestern, Myers said.

“I’m ready to make this commitment because this will benefit the county as a whole,” said Commissioner Tom Stone.

A 1996 economic study for the airport reports that about 122,000 passengers arrived at Eagle County’s airport on commercial planes.

“The total economic activity coming from the passengers in 1996 generated $308 million,” said Dick Gustafson, a former county commissioner, who acts as a consultant on airport issues.

Each passenger coming through the airport brings about $1,700 of economic activity to the county, Gustafson added.

“Keeping the numbers conservative, the summer flights could mean at least $9 million more in economic activity,” he said.

In 1994, a similar program was discontinued because Vail Associates had to subsidize the service.

Myers said the services stopped because the company, which wasn’t a summer business at that time, was the only entity subsidizing the flights.

“We’ve had a lot of bumps in the past,” Ingstad said. “But now we have a better airport. We can accommodate the kind of customer service passengers need.”

In addition to bringing more business, Ingstad said, the airport gets paid for each passenger using the airport. Other income will come from rental car fees, fuel taxes and more federal money, Ingstad said.

“You have to look at this more in the long-term,” he said. “Once you get successful, you quit subsidizing.”

U.S. Customs moving along

Eagle County Regional Airport is on the fast track to get U.S. Customs service and become an international airport, county officials say.

U.S. Customs authorities in Denver have agreed with a request from Eagle County to supply a customs agent. This is the first step in the process, says George Roussos, acting airport manager. To qualify, there are certain statutory requirements the airport will have to satisfy.

If the initiative goes through, private planes coming from outside the country could soon be flying nonstop to the airport in Gypsum.

Currently, planes coming from outside the United States must add a stop to clear customs before landing in Eagle.

“We’re pushing to get this as soon as possible,” he says. “But I can’t say if it will be ready for winter.”

Roussos said he expects to receive a contract outlying conditions and requirements within two weeks.

Initially, the customs service in Eagle County would serve private aviation – not commercial airlines carrying passengers – and likely involve just one customs agent, said county Attorney Diane Mauriello.

During 2001, approximately 350 arriving private planes had to clear customs before landing at Eagle, said James C. Allen, chairman and CEO of the Vail Valley Jet Center and a champion for the effort.

The new custom service, county Administrator Jack Ingstad said, won’t cost the county any money.

“The Jet Center has allowed us to use the old terminal and also agreed to take on the financial risk,” he said. “We’ll share on the profits.”

Ingstad said international flights would be charged to go through customs. Another benefit he expects is profits from refueling planes on international flights.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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