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Eagle County airport moves toward international flights

Lauren Glendenning
Vail Daily
Aspen, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyPassengers wait for their luggage at the baggage carousel after landing at Eagle County Regional Airport in Gypsum Wednesday. A study looking at whether an international terminal is feasible at the airport was recently completed.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – Direct international flights into the Eagle County Regional Airport could happen as early as next winter.

Talks of building an international terminal at the airport have been going on since 2006, and the talking has been getting a lot more serious in recent months. It would likely be years before an international terminal could get built, but flights out of Canada that pre-clear customs while still in Canada could be landing in Eagle soon.

“I think with some finesse and some joining of hands with the stakeholders, it could be accomplished in the short-term,” said Vail Mountain Marketing Director Adam Sutner.

The Eagle County airport and Vail Valley Jet Center hired The Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm, last year to study what international arrivals might look like at the Eagle County Airport.

The study was recently completed and found a number of pros and cons for a terminal that could accommodate international commercial and charter flights during the winter months, said Mike Boyd, one of the consultants.

“The Vail Valley is a world class resort right now, so having (an international terminal) would be very important, if not a necessity,” Boyd said. “This is a world-class destination and a world-class facility where people will be flying in their business jets, which would be important for the community.”

The Boyd Group study shows that direct flights from Europe are impossible as planes have to stop to refuel before reaching Eagle. Stopping to refuel without having to deplane passengers and their baggage is an attractive option, however.

International flights from Europe could make that refueling stop quickly, and avoid the “unpleasantness of deplaning everybody,” and then clear customs in Eagle if the international terminal existed, said Paul Gordon, president of the Vail Valley Jet Center.

“I think our facility will help facilitate the ease of travel into Vail – it would be a great asset for our community,” Gordon said.

Mexico and Canada are Vail and Beaver Creek’s top two destination markets and nonstop flights that don’t need to stop for fuel along the way are possible from both markets.

“You’re competing with a lot of places for high-end international ski traffic, and you want to make sure that Vail is a place you can get in and get out of real quickly,” Boyd said. “It’s a destination resort and destination resorts need certain things to compete globally.”

Other North American ski resorts might have an international airport close by – Utah resorts and Whistler, British Columbia, are examples – but for regional airports that specifically serve ski resort towns, Eagle would be the first, said Kent Myers, president of Airplanners, an Avon-based air program manager for community airports around the country.

Simply having a nonstop flight into the airport isn’t necessarily enough to steal market share, though.

Sutner said he thinks the potential for the demand is out there, but the stakeholders – Vail Resorts, local governments, banks, hotels, hospitality companies and other organizations that make up the Eagle Air Alliance – haven’t fully validated the day-in and day-out demand that it would take to sustain regularly scheduled flights.

“It’s one thing to build an international terminal, and another thing to have daily flight service there from the various markets,” Sutner said.

The timing of building such a terminal soon is perfect, though, because ski business in the United States is changing, Sutner said. He said the extent to which Vail Resorts is looking overseas for growth is significant.

Airport officials and other stakeholders will now go over The Boyd Group findings to determine the next steps. Gordon said Vail Valley Jet Center and the airport are in a “business development phase for the international terminal.”

The stakeholders have hired Lucy Kay, the former chief operating officer for Breckenridge, as the project manager for what’s being called the “Eagle International Arrivals Project.”

The Boyd Group thought there was plenty of demand for scheduled international air service, which is nice to know from a commercial airline standpoint, Gordon said.

“We need to meet with Vail Resorts and a lot of the hotel community – all the groups – to really dive into what the market looks like,” Gordon said.

Sutner said the commitment is so extensive that the project has to be shared. There are financial, political, marketing, infrastructure and other pieces that have to come together.

“I don’t think any single stakeholder can pull it off on their own,” Sutner said.

Estimates for remodeling the airport to include an international terminal are around $2.5 million, not including about $700,000 in annual costs to run the facility, Gordon said.

lglendenning@vaildaily.com


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