By Mark Reaman
While there are a lot more seats flying into the Gunnison-Crested Butte airport this winter, the number of people who have flown in is almost the same as last year. That will impact the payment of guarantees to participating airlines this year, and also what the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) can expect for next ski season’s flights.
RTA airline consultant Kent Myers told the board at the March 9 meeting that the winter air program was 173 passengers ahead of the 2016-17 season. But that is with 5,200 more seats flying to and from the airport, a 7.8 percent increase.
“Houston is holding on, Denver has been very successful, but American [out of Dallas] has not been a success this winter,” he said. “We will exceed the caps and the loss will be a big number.”
“Our caps are pretty low based on the success we have had the last several years,” added RTA executive director Scott Truex. “That will probably change after this year.”
Truex reported that the Denver passenger count was up about 4,800 people, the Houston flights were up around 1,000 and Dallas was flat compared to last year’s winter ski season. The 2016-17 winter flight program also had flights from Los Angeles on Alaskan Air and from Chicago on United.
Myers said he has already contacted airline representatives and started talks about flights and pricing for next winter.
“We will be talking in the near future about right-sizing flights,” said RTA chairman John Messner. “We added a lot of seats this winter. It is interesting that we had the same number of people this year and last with two dramatically different ski seasons. The snow conditions are very different. If this winter was the same as last, would we have filled more seats?”
“We should have had a higher load factor if it were apples to apples,” said Myers. “The snow conditions certainly impacted it.”
“It is hard to predict but if there were 7 percent more seats you would think there would be 7 percent more people with the same winter conditions,” added Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Association air consultant Jeff Moffett. “If you go up in seats you should get the same load factor with a strong snow year.”
“We don’t want to ‘right-size’ after a bad snow year,” said Messner.
“We had a big increase in Denver passengers and we don’t pay for that,” noted Myers.
The early-season flights had a big impact on the overall season numbers, said Crested Butte Mountain Resort vice president of marketing and sales Scott Clarkson. “Remember, there was a glut of capacity before Christmas starting December 12 to 16. There were lots of seats with no demand. Typical pre-Christmas snow. That’s where we lost a lot of money.”
“A lot of decisions will come with what we can afford after the new caps are set,” said Truex.
“Other resorts comparable to us—with the exception of maybe Jackson that got a lot of snow—were in a similar situation,” said Myers.
“Other resorts were able to change up the focus on their product,” said RTA board member Leah Morrison. For example, she said, Telluride started pushing their spa services and overall vacation amenities.
“When looking at next year we shouldn’t do anything drastic,” suggested RTA board member Danny D’Aquila. “We should count on at least an average year in terms of snow. We had a unusual hurdle this year.”
CBMR vice president Erica Mueller noted that overall for this winter season the destination guests who flew in “saved us. We were down in the drive market primarily. Once people book an air vacation, the chances of cancelling are slim to none. People driving from Denver are much more last-minute when it comes to where they are going to ski. Snow matters more to them.”
The RTA has scheduled a board retreat for March 30, where they will hash out more details about what they will try to set up in terms of flights for next winter.
For the upcoming summer, the RTA is expecting a good season, especially out of Houston. Those flights are loaded in the system and about half the flights will use a 50-passenger aircraft, while the other half (26 segments), primarily on the weekends, will fly a 76-seater into GUC. “That Houston service starts June 9 and I anticipate a much better year for the summer service,” said Myers.
Truex said not to expect too much with the early-summer flights but he noted that United will fly two daily flights out of Denver all summer and into October, ending on October 4. One flight per day will be scheduled all spring out of Denver.
“It is actually the first time in three years that United out of Denver is flying at least one trip a day in the spring and fall,” said Myers.
Denver versus Houston and Dallas as the key service airport
The RTA board addressed a letter from David Leinsdorf that suggested the board should be focused on strengthening Denver air service into GUC. Myers pointed out that Gunnison is one of the smallest airports in the country and there is not a lot of leverage to attain more flights. “The other thing to remember is that while we certainly should keep a focus on Denver, the other airports we use are important to second homeowners, our history and our heritage,” concluded Myers.