Winter air passenger traffic increased

Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily

For information

The EGE Air Alliance is hosting monthly meetings to talk business and airlines. The EGE Air Alliance is a 501c6 not-for-profit entity dedicated to creating a vibrant flight service program at the Eagle County Regional Airport. EGE Air Alliance is a public-private partnership with participants including local municipalities and private business stakeholders. For more information, contact the Vail Valley Partnership at 970-476-1000.

EAGLE COUNTY — The local airport welcomed more passengers in fewer seats this winter season.

The Eagle Air Alliance will know how many more in a few days, but passenger numbers are up, said Mike Brown, president of the Air Alliance’s board of directors.

However, we do know that the number of seats flying into the Eagle County Regional Airport is down about 100,000 since the winter 2007-08 peak (273,000 inbound seats), when the economy tanked.

The reasons are varied, Brown said. Fewer airlines are in business, and they’re flying smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft that carry fewer people.

Still, more people flew into the local airport this winter than last winter, said Gabe Shalley, Vail Resorts’ air program manager.

Those increased numbers rolled up despite airlines offering no fare sales at all into Eagle County. The planes into EGE were full enough that airlines didn’t need to cut rates to attract passengers.

“Good for them. They’re making money, and we didn’t necessarily lose any passenger numbers,” Shalley said.

Also, the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships rolled into Presidents Day weekend, usually a big weekend for destination skiers, Shalley said.

The average plane that landed at the Eagle County airport was 67 percent full, Shalley said. That’s based on the total number of seats from November to April, seven days a week. Like everyone else, holidays and peak season flights are packed, running as much as 98 percent full, Shalley said.

Monthly updates

The EGE Air Alliance will host these meetings monthly, Brown said, to help locals understand the role they can play in driving business to the valley.

When they started in 2002, the annual budget was $200,000. Now it’s $500,000 and comes from local governments and about 70 local businesses.

Most of the money is spent on bringing new flights to the local airport, mostly in the summer. Airlines don’t need much encouragement to fly to Vail in the winter.

The EGE is looking at some sort of long-term funding mechanism, Brown said. Steamboat has a sales tax. Other resort communities do it other ways.

They’re collecting information and want to get it right before they settle on something, Brown said. They used to use the “cup and cane” approach in which volunteers would ask their friends and colleagues for money.

“That’s not sustainable,” Brown said.

They’ve launched this year’s fundraising campaign and are signing up new members.

Besides collecting money and memberships, they’ll also speak to just about any group as they try to educate the public.

One of things they’d love to talk about is additional winter markets, two to the West Coast and one in the Southeast.

They can’t say what the cities are yet, but an announcement could be made in late May or early June, Shalley said.

“We hope to have something new for next winter,” she said. “We’re looking forward to having new markets next year.”

Occasionally, someone suggests using the airport’s new parking fees for airline revenue guarantees, Shalley said.

That’s not permitted. Under FAA regulations, the money raised at the airport — gate fees, landing fees, concessions and parking — must stay there to improve and maintain the airport facility.

Summer traffic

In the meantime, the Air Alliance is also trying to drive summer air traffic.

They’re not alone. There are flights to eight Colorado airports from Houston, and not just Denver and Colorado Springs.

“It’s good for Colorado, but we still have to fight for our share of that market,” Shalley said.

The EGE Air Alliance is a nonprofit dedicated to driving flight service into the Eagle County Regional Airport. Winter sees non-stop flights from 11 markets, and three in the summer: Denver, Houston and Dallas.

In 2002, a small group of local business leaders and several local government entities signed an agreement with American Airlines for daily nonstop 757 service from Dallas/Fort Worth.

After three years, the flight proved successful enough that AA dropped the guarantee requirements.

These days, EGE Air Alliance’s airline guarantees are focused on United’s summer flight from Houston and Air Canada’s Toronto flight, Brown said.

The only revenue guarantees are United’s summer to Houston, $385,000, less than previous years, and winter to Toronto by Air Canada, $125,000.

Those revenue guarantees are a model used in several resort communities.

“The difference is that many of those resorts have to pay those guarantees forever,” Brown said. “Here, in two to three years we can wean the airlines off those revenue guarantees and use that money for other opportunities.”

On that Houston summer flight, 60 percent of the passengers originated in Houston.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935.

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