New flight from Chicago bolsters service |

New flight from Chicago bolsters service

On the web

Eagle County and Vail Resorts recently unveiled a thorough update to the website. The updated site has direct links to airlines, as well as one-click access to every route coming to Eagle County this winter. The site also features information about general aviation and other community information.

EAGLE COUNTY — As the new ski season gathers strength, the Vail Valley will soon see its annual influx of visitors who fly into the Eagle County Regional Airport. There’s some good news this season, but more to come starting in 2016.

First, the good news: United Airlines has added a weekend flight from Chicago. That service will augment existing daily service from American Airlines.

That new service comes with no strings, meaning United has started the service on its own, without asking for revenue guarantees.

Airlines often ask for guarantees on new routes as insurance against losing money. The money to cover possible airline shortfalls comes from destination communities. Here, that money is raised by the EGE Air Alliance, a nonprofit group dedicated to boosting both summer and winter air service into the Vail Valley.

The alliance re-started its efforts a few years ago, after the airport had lost its perch as the second-busiest facility in the state during winter months. That decline came about due to a combination of factors including a national economic slump, airline mergers and a gradual industry-wide shift to aircraft that carry fewer passengers.

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Changing planes

Specifically, the shift in equipment is away from the Boeing 757. That plane carries about 180 passengers, and has the performance needed to operated at high-elevation airports. But 757 production ended in 1996. That leaves airlines moving toward newer version of the smaller Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320. Both of those long-serving planes carry between 120 and 130 passengers. Improvements in engine technology has also allowed those planes to operate at places like the Eagle County airport.

This season, only four winter routes will use the older, bigger aircraft.

Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said the switch to smaller aircraft is good news, in a way. The smaller planes are less expensive to operate, which could mean better ticket prices on some routes.

But the switch to smaller planes meant a loss of available seats.

That’s where the alliance comes in to play.

EGE Alliance’s Role

The group started four years ago with a mission to attract new summer flights, and succeeded, landing a United route from Houston.

Throughout the past several months, though, the nonprofit group has shifted its focus to adding winter flights. The fact of the matter is that even as Vail’s summer business has grown, winter still accounts for roughly 70 percent of the town’s sales tax revenue.

That’s why the alliance three years ago signed a deal for an Air Canada route from Toronto.

The first year of that service came without a request for a revenue guarantee. That changed for the 2014 -15 season, when Air Canada brought fewer flights and asked for revenue guarantees.

But the Toronto flight and Houston flight are working the way revenue-guaranteed flights are supposed to, requiring smaller subsidies as routes become established.

EGE Air Alliance Chairman Michael Brown said both United and Air Canada have asked for significantly smaller revenue guarantees in 2015.

More money, more flights

The difference is particularly marked with the summer flight from Houston.

“We started north of $400,000 (in revenue guarantees),” Brown said. “This year, in the third year, we paid less than $200,000.”

With those decreases in revenue guarantees comes opportunity. The alliance has asked both local businesses and local governments for roughly the same amount of money for the past few years. That means money not spent on current guarantees can be funneled toward attracting new flights.

That effort will bear fruit for the 2016-17 ski season.

Brown said the alliance is near an agreement with Allegiant Air for a flight to Eagle County from Oakland, California. That deal will mark a couple of milestones — the first service from the San Francisco/Oakland area, and the first deal with a low-fare airline.

Brown said the alliance was hoping for a deal this ski season, but that idea was derailed by logistical problems including the fact that commercial pilots require special training to fly in and out of high-elevation airports. Those problems should be solved by next ski season.

Brown added that bringing a low-fare carrier to Eagle County might also be the first step in making the airport a facility that’s used by locals as well as visitors.

In addition to the Allegiant deal, Brown said the alliance is working with American Airlines on a new route to Eagle County from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“That’s a major, major connection for American,” Brown said. “It connects to the entire Eastern Seaboard, but especially the southeastern states and Florida.”

Phillips said the prospect of those flights next ski season make the next “few to several years” an exciting time.

And, Brown said, the alliance is working on still other flights, and still pondering asking voters for some sort of tax to create a permanent funding source for future flights.

“We’re going to continue to reach out, to determine if and when we’re going to go to voters (in 2016 or ’17),” Brown said.

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

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