Spring is rough and summer looking up
by Mark Reaman
The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) reported Friday that air service into the Gunnison airport (GUC) has been pretty solid for the ski season. On the whole, the seats are filling up at about the 70 percent level and March looks to come in above 74 percent.
The overall air program includes direct flights to GUC from Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. Denver flights are not guaranteed and they are filling up at a 73 percent rate. The new Los Angeles flight is lagging behind at a 51 percent load factor.
Last year, the overall program finished with a 74 percent inbound load factor and the program ended up costing about $168,000 in guarantees. RTA executive director Scott Truex said it is too early to know what the costs will end up being this year.
“It has been a successful winter,” Truex said. “March looks to finish strong and we are hopeful that we will be able to increase the number of seats into the airport a bit next winter.”
After the ski season, the airport will be extremely quiet, as United Airlines has decided to suspend flights to GUC from April 4 until June 8. The RTA has been researching options to try to find service into the airport since many local business travelers have expressed concern about the lack of flights. Last spring a 50-seat aircraft serviced the Gunnison airport daily from Denver.
Next year the airport is doing major runway improvements so it is expected to be closed for up to 12 weeks starting in April 2017.
While it is too late to fill in flights this spring, RTA airline consultant Kent Myers said there are a few options to consider for the future and he and Truex are delving into a service called Boutique Air. The San Francisco–based airline services several commuter flights around the country.
“They have operations out of Denver and I think there is real interest in this,” said Myers, who has held a couple of public meetings with local business travelers.
Truex said Boutique would likely provide a nine-seat plane two or three times a day to fly between Gunnison and Denver. “We need to gather more information and numbers and get back to the board,” said Truex.
Myers said there could be an opportunity to start such flights this fall, after the runway work is completed in 2017 or not at all. “We are looking at all the options but we don’t want to upset the apple cart with United,” he said. “The business people we have met with like the concept.”
Truex said Western State Colorado University president Greg Salsbury has indicated the university would be interested in supporting the idea of Boutique Air. Salsbury expressed displeasure at one of the business forums regarding the fact that United would not be servicing the airport this spring, when graduation is scheduled. “He reiterated how important access is when competing with other schools,” said Truex.
The RTA does not pay to guarantee United flights out of Denver.
“Is the apple cart working with us and do we have to be sensitive to them?” asked RTA board member Glenn Michel.
“I hope United would be a better partner but they hold most of the cards at the GUC Airport during the spring/early summer/ fall periods, and if they want the Gunnison Airport to fail, they can do that to us,” said Myers. “I don’t want to be the person pushing that.”
“Half the passengers coming into the airport probably come in on United,” noted Truex.
“United service is critical to us,” added RTA board member Jonathan Houck.
Myers said he and Truex would gather more information to see how Boutique Air could work as a part of the puzzle of the Gunnison Airport and report back to the board.
“There is a deal to be made there,” said Myers.
Summer airline flights are loaded into the system and can be booked, but United and the RTA have yet to officially sign a contract for the Houston flights. The flights from Houston will start June 26 and run through Labor Day weekend. Daily service will take place between July 1 and August 15.
The RTA plans to allocate up to $135,000 in grant subsidized marketing for those Houston flights through the local Tourism Association. Truex noted that there would be more summer seats flying in from Houston to Gunnison than there are winter seats from that location.