Vail Valley winter air service upgrades include a new flight from Philadelphia
After a long lull, service into Eagle County Regional Airport is on an upward swing
EAGLE COUNTY — Mike Brumbaugh has seen peaks and valleys in the number of flights coming into the Eagle County Regional Airport.
At one point, before the national economic slump that hit full force in 2008, Eagle County was the state’s second-busiest airport during the winter.
But a combination of the economic slump, airline consolidation and a gradual switch to smaller aircraft combined to drop the airport’s passenger numbers.
The EGE Air Alliance was created several years ago to reverse that decline. Brumbaugh, the chairman of that volunteer group, said 2018 and this year have seen the start of a turnaround in available service.
The airport’s winter flight schedule begins Dec. 18 in earnest, and Brumbaugh said he’s excited about some of the changes.
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American Airlines has a brand-new flight from Philadelphia this year, and there’s expanded service from Chicago on United Airlines. United’s daily service to and from Denver has also been beefed up, and American in the spring of 2020 will bring back flights from Dallas.
Brumbaugh said the timing of the flights may be just as important as the number of flights.
Brumbaugh noted that several flights to major air hubs are leaving Eagle County earlier in the morning. That gives people the opportunity to make connecting flights that day. Flights are arriving later in Eagle County, providing the same connecting flight convenience to people flying into the county.
Stay off I-70
Brumbaugh said the expanded service to Denver will give more people the opportunity to stay off Interstate 70.
A major snowstorm over the Thanksgiving holiday snarled I-70 out of and into the mountains.
“I have four friends who traveled last weekend, flying into Denver,” Brumbaugh said. “It took them between 10 and 13 hours to get back home.”
Building a portfolio of service takes nearly constant work.
Eagle County Aviation Director David Reid started work here in June. He’s been on a road a lot, meeting with airline officials.
“We reach out to everybody,” Reid said. That includes “low cost” carriers such as Southwest and Alaska Air.
Reid said he and EGE Air Alliance representatives make frequent trips to service conferences. Those events give both airlines and communities a chance to talk about present and future flights.
While discussions are frequent, the airline industry moves deliberately. Reid said it can take 10 to 24 months to have a route added.
With that in mind, Reid said “We’ve had some very successful conversations with all our airline partners. We’re keeping the dialog and relationships open.”
Both Brumbaugh and Reid noted that it’s harder to bring new service to regional airports. Industry consolidation has reduced the number of aircraft available. Reid said there’s also a shortage of pilots in the industry right now.
Further complicating matters, Reid noted that the Federal Aviation Administration requires special certifications for commercial pilots who fly into high-elevation regional airports, including Eagle County.
Airlines also frequently change aircraft serving regional airports.
For a number of years, the Boeing 757 was the go-to airliner for Eagle County. Those planes hold roughly 180 passengers, and also have the engine performance needed to operate at high-elevation airports.
Over the years, airlines have also shifted to planes including the Boeing 737 and the Airbus 319 and 320, all of which these days have enough power to operate at high-elevation airports.
Reid said Eagle County is fortunate to have a runway that’s 9,000 feet long, which allows aircraft more room for takeoff. That’s particularly important in the summer, since warm air is less dense than cold air.
Locals should look
While the airport has long been a conduit to bring guests to the valley, Brumbaugh said locals would be well-served to look at ticket prices before simply booking flights through Denver.
“Give it a shot,” he said, noting that a $100 difference in ticket prices might be worth the time saved going to Denver.
Brumbaugh also credited the county government for increasing its efforts to bring more and more diverse service to the local airport.
“They really deserve a ton of credit,” he said.
Grand Hyatt Vail General Manager Dan Johnson has only been in the valley since the summer, but said he’s impressed with recent efforts to build service.
“It’s advantageous connection to many customer bases, both group and leisure, that select destinations based on proximity to an airport,” Johnson said.
Again, though, it takes a lot of work to build a solid base of flight service.
“It used to be you could just make a business case (for service),” Reid said. “Now, everybody’s competing… we’re fortunate to have such strong community support.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 9700748-2930.