Colorado ski flights up in down time |

Colorado ski flights up in down time

Chris Walsh
Rocky Mountain News
Aspen, CO Colorado
Chris Schneider/Rocky Mountain NewsNick Elliott gets his ticket at United Express at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Steamboat Springs last week. Capacity at the airport is flat this winter.

Cities across the nation are losing airline service as carriers ground planes and ax routes to cope with a sagging economy.

But several smaller Colorado towns are faring relatively well, particularly mountain destinations that attract heavy ski crowds in the winter months. Air service to resorts such as Aspen and Gunnison is holding steady or even increasing this year.

The difference between these areas and the cities losing service: Some ski and resort towns attract wealthier tourists, who are more resilient when the economy turns south. Frontier Airlines also has started flying turboprop planes over the past year to smaller markets in the region ” even as it cuts back flights on its larger Airbus planes. And some areas have landed new service by offering financial guarantees to help ensure the flights are successful for the carriers.

Eagle County Airport, which is near Vail and several other resorts, said its service levels are on par with last year, with one exception: US Airways bagged its nonstop flight to Charlotte, N.C. The loss of that service is minimal, however, because the flight only operated one day a week for just two months of the year. And in this environment, losing just one flight can be considered a success.

“People still take vacations and ski in the winter, especially around the holidays,” said Ovid Seifers, manager of the Eagle County Airport. “And the people that come to the Aspens and the Vails of the world are pretty high-income clientele, so we’re less affected by the overall economic downturn. We knew last winter that we wouldn’t have the Charlotte flight again, so it had nothing to do with the current economic (or industry) situation.”

Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport will see an additional 9,000 seats this ski season, representing a 20 percent increase in capacity. The airport kept all of its service from last year and was able to add new nonstop flights to Salt Lake City, Chicago and Atlanta, in part by offering airlines incentives.

Aspen is benefiting from a 14 percent increase in the number of seats flying into and out of its airport in the peak period from December through April. In fact, capacity will be at its highest level since the 1997-’98 season, said Bill Tomcich, president of booking agency Stay Aspen Snowmass and the ski resort’s liaison to the airline industry.

“We’re in pretty good shape,” Tomcich said.

Some other airports in Colorado are seeing healthy increases for other reasons.

Grand Junction Regional Airport has landed a 40 percent increase in seats this year compared with 2007. American Airlines added 100 seats a day with new service to Dallas, while Frontier added about 220 seats a day with service to Denver through its Lynx turboprop operations.

Grand Junction doesn’t attract the same crowds as the ski destinations, so it typically doesn’t see a spike in air service in the winter. The increase in capacity this year in general is tied to the region’s economy, which continues to grow despite a national downturn, said Rex Tippetts, the airport’s manager.

“The oil and gas industry is still a growing market here,” Tippetts said. “Airlines went out looking for niches like this.”

The challenge for these towns will be filling those seats. Travel demand dipped significantly in just the past few weeks, and many observers believe the decline will increase over the next few months.

That could mean empty seats to Colorado ski destinations this winter, which would put the towns in a precarious position. To lure airline service, most resort destinations offer some type of incentive to airlines. That usually takes the form of a revenue guarantee, in which a ski resort or a town guarantees a carrier that it will fill a certain number of seats on a specific route and then pays the difference if the airline falls short.

Steamboat Springs offers roughly $1 million in revenue guarantees, said David Ruppel, manager of Yampa Valley Regional Airport, which is seeing flat capacity this winter vs. a year ago.

The ski resort and the town’s chamber of commerce cover most of the guarantees, although they haven’t had to pay in recent years because of solid traffic numbers. As for this year?

“We’ve managed to keep our service levels the same, which is good, but it’s a little more pins and needles right now,” Ruppel said. “We’ll probably end up having to pay something this year, but probably not the whole amount. It’s hard to say at this point, because people are really booking at the last minute.”

The increase in service, coupled with falling demand, is great news for consumers because ticket prices are dropping.

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