Talk about being between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The members of the Rural Transportation Authority were faced with a couple of options to support the valley’s air transportation. None were set up to make them come out smelling like roses. But they debated the options, and made a decision. Good on ‘em.
Local businessmen argued for doing whatever was necessary to get more and better flights between Denver and Gunnison. They didn’t really care about ski season connections. For them and a growing part of the local demographic the argument made sense. Unfortunately, that demographic still isn’t big enough for United Airlines to justify those types of changes without major expenditures that the RTA can’t afford. The RTA board had budgeted $550,000 to go toward air service this year. At last glance in 2012, just getting United to shift a plane to come in and overnight in Gunnison year-round was quoted to cost about $1.9 million. That was not guaranteeing an extra flight; it was just the cost of adjusting timing.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort reported that they were proceeding with a contract with American Airlines to secure the winter flight out of Dallas for next ski season. That is a no brainer but comes with a smaller plane than last year and will bring in 6,000 fewer seats on those winter flights. That reduction in seats from the valley’s main airline funnel is a blow to the area. The new plane has 128 seats compared to the 188-seat jet that flew last season.
Last year, about 40 percent of the inbound flights on that American jet carried more than 128 people here. So, there will be times that the reduction in seats will absolutely hurt us by not being able to meet proven demand. During Christmas and New Year’s and some spring break weeks we could probably fill three or four of those big planes. We are leaving money on the table during those busy times. One idea might be to investigate independent charter flights for just the three or four busiest weeks when there is a high degree of certainty of filling charter planes with groups and people who can’t find a commercial seat. Just an idea.
But the RTA board decided Monday to commit this year’s airline budget for flight guarantees on continuing to bring in a direct United Airlines flight out of Houston. There were two options to continue that flight. One was to use a smaller, 66-seat plane than last year. The other was to repeat last year’s template and continue to guarantee an Airbus with 128 seats. It was a $290,000 difference in guarantee money.
My initial reaction would be to go small, fill the seats and build up. But RTA board member Paula Swenson made some good arguments to bite the bullet and continue to pay for the big plane. Her position was based in the need for consistency and reliability. She pointed out that having more seats out of Houston could help keep airfares down. She pointed out that the board has for years harped on the need for consistency in the markets it already has. She pointed out that the bigger plane could handle winter weather situations better than the smaller option.
Look, the bottom line is that some people around here might have Telluride and Aspen envy. They want to be considered a broad, commonly known place. Their theory might be to bring in the movie stars and CEOs and reach out to a dozen new markets to spur growth that way.
But the reality is we are a draw for those folks coming out of places like Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. We certainly get visitors from other areas of the country (including Beverly Hills once in a while) but our bread-and-butter during the ski season has a Texas twang. It has been that way for decades. Literally generations of families from that section of the country have a deep connection to this valley. So there is a strong argument for building up consistency with those stalwart visitors who bring their families here and love the vibe of this Crested Butte ski village.
Is it not sensible to nurture those who have supported us? The RTA chose that path this week and it was a wise choice.
I will continue to argue that we can do a better job making this a more interesting destination resort that makes it worth the pain of getting here. If we do that, we will fill more airline seats and the airlines will add more planes and we will get an economy that is based on more than four weeks in the winter and a pretty nice summer. It’s the supply-and-demand theory.
It was pointed out at Monday’s meeting that with the exception of Aspen and maybe Durango, airline seats coming into Colorado mountain towns are declining everywhere. It’s not just our problem.
So we have to do what fits in the Crested Butte/Gunnison wheelhouse. That includes first and foremost treating our primary customer base well. Give them the chance to get here as easily as possible with the tools we control. Do what we can to make their airline tickets as affordable as possible. Provide them with an experience that matches what they are asked to spend. Give them new and interesting things to do when they get here. Respect their desire and fulfill their vision to spend their time in a unique, friendly, adventurous Colorado mountain town…and then get them to come back.
The RTA did its part this week. Stuck between a rock and hard place, the RTA chose the hard place…but with the idea to make the hard place easier to get to for visitors. Now for the rest of the equation…