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Local effort to discount January air tickets generating early interest

Is it worth spending more,especially with the Houston situation?

By Mark Reaman

Members of the Gunnison Valley Transportation Authority (RTA) indicated September 1 that they wanted to take a wait-and-see attitude toward contributing more money to the so-called United Airlines “buy-down” program.

That program is meant to reduce the cost of United Airlines flights coming through Denver to the Gunnison airport in January. The RTA last month committed $150,000 to buy-down ticket costs for in-bound flights and another $50,000 to reduce the price of tickets originating from Gunnison—presumably to help local county residents.

Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association (TA) executive director John Norton made the request for an additional $50,000 from the RTA for inbound flights at the September 1 RTA gathering. Because there was no quorum there was no official meeting and no vote could be taken on his request.

Norton said the initial buy-down for  all flights was about $300 per ticket.

The out-bound buy-down program was released to the Western State Colorado University community the last week of August and Norton said response was immediate and positive. He said about 75 inquiries were received the first couple of days. That, along with some hard sales indicate the program was getting a “good, strong response. With the $300 buy-down it appears a ticket is costing between $50 and $70 less than a ticket from Denver,” he said. “We might lower the buy-down to $200.”

He said the early WSCU interest focused on the holiday season with students looking to leave the week before Christmas and come back to Gunnison after New Year’s.

“I am getting a lot of positive response to the program,” said RTA board member and Gunnison county commissioner John Messner. “People can’t believe they can get from Gunnison to the East Coast for $350. I think this will sell out. There’s a lot of good buzz with the program.”

For in-bound flights, the TA has partnered with Crested Butte Mountain Resort and most all local lodging properties. “The in-bound buy-down is probably right at $300. We’ll stick with that for now,” explained Norton. “The local properties are helping with rates and CBMR gave us a discounted lift ticket. That, along with the RTA buy-down, has allowed us to put together some pretty terrific packages. We’ll really get the word out after Labor Day.”

Norton said he expected the in-bound buy-down program to also motivate ticket sales in January. “We want to keep the momentum going when we start marketing this,” he said in terms of the rationale for the $50,000 request. “The additional money should help sell another 667 airline tickets. I’ll make the request at the October meeting.”

Houston issues come into play

RTA board member and Mt. Crested Butte Town Council representative Janet Farmer reiterated her concern with the whole concept of RTA funds being used to buy-down ticket prices. “I voiced my concerns about the whole idea at the last meeting so I am opposed to the additional $50,000. I think the Houston flights could also be in trouble now with the hurricane,” she said. “I think lots of people will be having financial difficulties from the storm.”

“Janet is probably right,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex. “And if that’s the case and we have to pay the entire $300,000 guarantee cap for the season, the caps could rise significantly in the future. We need to think long-term.”

“I think we will have some real problems with Texas,” agreed RTA air consultant Kent Myers. “I have good friends who are skiers living there and this is bad news in Houston right now. We may need to backfill seats from somewhere else.”

CBMR vice president of marketing and sales Scott Clarkson confirmed the storm has impacted Houston marketing. “We are off from that area by about 50 percent from where we were this time last year,” he said. “We are watching Houston closely. In terms of outreach, we have gone dark right now. We just don’t think it is appropriate right now. We are monitoring the Houston situation.”

The RTA discussed somehow contributing to fundraising efforts to help Houston. They also discussed reaching out to United to see if anything could be done to upgrade planes that fly between Denver and Gunnison but don’t have the top-of-the-line equipment to deal with weather situations at GUC, which then result in cancellations. Having more flights and people flying in to GUC in January and not having a good experience concerned the RTA board.

Focus on January but be aware it is deleting reserves

“We are trying to solve the January problem with the buy-down program,” added Messner. “The idea is to fill flights in January. I would want to see if the program is working and at what level before expanding the program and allocating more money.

“Ultimately this is about the number of people utilizing the Denver/Gunnison flight, whether they are locals or visitors,” Messner continued. “From a pure public relations piece, people see a great value for their money with this buy-down. The local piece really matters and that’s why I think it is a good program. But I want to wait before I would support allocating more money.”

“The key will be to see when and how many people buy tickets,” said Truex. “Will we sell more tickets? Are people buying them earlier to get the discounts from the buy-downs?”

“I want to see the numbers at the next meeting,” said RTA chair Roland Mason. “Remember too, the buy-down program could be a good program but I don’t want to set a precedent. To me, this is a one-time deal meant to help fill the additional seats United has in January.”

“I am concerned about that as well,” agreed Truex. “This is dipping into your reserves. I have already heard people suggest we do it in the spring and look at next year. Where will the money come from? It is not sustainable.”

The RTA board will consider Norton’s request for more buy-down funds at the October meeting.

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