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Winter air suffering, RTA supporting a spring airfare “buy down” program

Save a Benjamin with spring air travel out of GUC

By Mark Reaman

With the acknowledgment that a low-snow year is having a negative impact on the number of people traveling to the area by air, the board of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority is moving to boost the number of filled airline seats by offering a $100 discount deal on tickets originating out of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) this spring.

The “buy-down” is meant to give locals a reason to choose flying out of the local airport instead of catching a plane in Montrose or Denver.

Under the program that is now open, people can book flights between February 12 and February 28 for travel that is completed by April 2. There are no blackout dates.

RTA airline consultant Kent Myers pointed out at the RTA meeting on Thursday, February 8 that 1,800 fewer airline seats had been sold this season compared to last. He said that while more people were flying into GUC from Denver, fewer were coming in from Dallas and Houston. Both the Texas markets had an increase in the number of seats flying into GUC with more flights over the previous winter. “Given the numbers, we are confident that we will be paying the guarantee caps this year,” he said.

“It will be a win next winter if we get similar air service to the 2016-17 season with similar guarantee caps,” agreed RTA executive director Scott Truex.

Crested Butte Mountain Resort vice president Erica Mueller pointed out that the RTA had not paid the guarantee to American Airlines flying out of Dallas for the last three or four years.

Local airline consultant Jeff Moffett said the increase in Denver-to-Gunnison flyers was a positive. “We want to hold to that as much as we can,” he said. “Those flights are free in that they don’t require a guarantee and we are on the cusp of maybe getting three flights a day out of Denver.”

RTA chair John Messner agreed keeping a strong Denver connection was important. Airport manager Rick Lamport informed the board that United Airlines was building an additional 39 gates at DIA.

“I love it when Denver is successful but let’s remember there is a lack of efficiency with those United flights when there is weather,” added Myers. “We really need to square that away and improve the technology to deal with approaches in weather.”

The board agreed to put up $25,000 in RTA money to fund an incentive program to encourage local flyers to use GUC. The idea is to “buy down” by $100 the cost of a round-trip ticket originating in Gunnison.

“This can help introduce people to GUC who don’t normally fly out of Gunnison,” said Messner. “We want people to pay attention that Gunnison is a viable market to fly out of.”

Messner noted that more than 75 percent of the people living near GUC who fly, use other airports. “This can be incentive for Western [State Colorado University] students going somewhere for spring break, for example. It is trying to be proactive with the public perception of the air program and letting people know they can utilize the services we help provide.”

While specific ticket prices depend on destination, the average airfare out of Gunnison is estimated to be about $450. The buy-down program essentially provides a 20 percent discount for 250 tickets. During a similar promotion earlier in the winter, about 300 people took advantage of the offer.

“I think a $100 discount can be compelling,” said Moffett.

The Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association will handle the logistics of the program and reservations can be made on the gunnisoncrestedbutte.com website.

The RTA hopes to gather data on travel habits from people who use the program. Myers said the RTA needed to be cautious about using regular subsidies to entice people to fly out of Gunnison. “Is the air program a success if locals only use it with a discount?” he asked.

RTA board member Janet Farmer reiterated her position that it was not the correct role of the RTA to spend money on subsidizing airfares. “It is a slippery slope,” she noted. “But if we do this I’m more in favor since it is doing it for outbound flights that should help local taxpayers.”

“I generally agree with Janet,” said RTA board member Kent Cowherd. “But I’m willing to try this as a test and since it is limited to outbound seats it is an advantage to our taxpaying locals.”

The board agreed to proceed with the buy-down program, with Farmer voting against the move.

According to the Tourism Association’s Daniel Kreykes, book travel with the buy-down through the form on the gunnisoncrestedbutte.com/locals/ page.

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