United adds winter flight | VailDaily.com

United adds winter flight

EAGLE COUNTY — Winter guests flying to the Vail Valley from Chicago this coming ski season will have something they haven't had in a while — airlines competing for their business.

Eagle County Regional Airport officials announced Monday that United Airlines will provide weekend service through peak periods of the 2015-16 ski season. Flights are scheduled for the Christmas holidays, and then from the first part of February through the end of the season. That flight will compete with an American Airlines non-stop flight from Chicago.

And, in a move that's unusual for an airline starting a new route, United added its flight without asking local officials for a revenue guarantee, a system in which communities pledge money to ensure an airline doesn't lose money on a new route.

Eagle County Aviation Director Greg Phillips said having two airlines competing for passengers may benefit consumers.

"My guess is it will lead to reduced prices," Phillips said.

Perhaps more important, though, United's move may help with negotiations to land other routes from major cities to the Vail Valley.

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FLIGHT GUARANTEE FUNDS

During the past several years, a combination of economic conditions, airline consolidation and the airlines' gradual switch to planes that carry fewer passengers has led to significant declines in passenger numbers at the airport. Aside from an improving national economy, local officials say the best way to reverse that trend is to attract more flights. But that takes money.

During the past three years, the EGE Air Alliance, a group of local business and government representatives, has raised about $500,000 per year to fund revenue guarantees.

In 2013, the Alliance landed a summer flight from Houston on United Airlines. That first season, United asked for a guarantee of $445,000, all of which was paid to the airline. In 2014, United asked for a $445,000 guarantee, but the summer flight carried enough passengers that the airline returned $181,000 to the community. For 2015, United asked for a $385,000 guarantee, and indications are that it won't keep all of that.

Acknowledging that only early numbers are available, EGE Air Alliance Board Chairman Michael Brown said this summer's service from Houston is poised to equal or exceed last summer's passenger numbers. If people keep flying from Houston to Gypsum — and a hot, muggy summer in the southern U.S. is strong incentive — then there could be more money from this year's flight guarantee funds to put into other projects.

BUILDING WINTER SERVICE

For the coming ski season, money left over from the 2014 United flight will pay a revenue guarantee for an Air Canada flight from Toronto. And, for the foreseeable future, the Alliance is going to put much, if not most, of its attention into building winter service.

"The best opportunities now are in the winter," Brown said, adding that discussions with airlines tend to focus on service for the winter months. Given the Vail Valley's popularity during ski season, there's simply more revenue available.

And there's a lot of existing, and potential, revenue to be had.

During 2014, guests flying into the county airport spent an estimated $200 million. That spending came over the course of a ski season during which there were 1,100 fewer "emplanements" — people either getting off or on a commercial flight.

The competition is stiff for guests and the airlines to carry them to resort airports. And local officials say Eagle County is operating at a competitive disadvantage. Other resorts, including Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Crested Butte, Telluride and Jackson, Wyoming, all have some sort of public financing to support revenue guarantees for new flights.

The Alliance has been working for more than a year to determine some sort of pubic-financing system for local flights. That probably means some sort of new tax, which would have to be approved by voters. In the case of the Alliance, any tax question would be proposed by Eagle County.

A proposal could go to voters as soon as this year, but time is running short.

Eagle County Clerk and Recorder Teak Simonton said in an email that her office must receive notice of a ballot question by Aug. 25. Ballot question content must be finalized by Sept. 4.

Brown said the Alliance board is still looking at research and determining whether to ask a tax question at all, and whether to go to voters this year or in 2016. That decision will be made soon, he said.

At the moment, though, Phillips said he's excited to work with the good community advocacy group the Alliance has become.

"You look at what they've been able to accomplish in (the few years) I've been here — they've added the Houston summer flight, the winter Toronto flight and now this United flight from Chicago," Phillips said. "We're having ongoing conversations with (the Alliance), letting them know how our market is doing — it keeps them thinking about what we can work on next."

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

By the numbers

8: Hub cities with winter service to the Eagle County Regional Airport.

2: Hub cities with summer service to Eagle County.

1: Hub city — Denver — with year ‘round service to Eagle County.

5: Airlines providing service to Eagle County — that includes United Airlines and United Express.