Vail’s epic boost could fill planes
By Mark Reaman
The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority is close to meeting its goal of getting 31,000 airline seats coming into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) next winter. That is about 5,000 fewer seats compared to last season but should reduce the chance of having to pay the airlines a guarantee for empty seats, which the RTA had to do this year.
For the upcoming 2018-19 ski season, the RTA has agreed to guarantee 30 round-trip flights out of Houston with United Airlines, with a maximum financial guarantee cap of $400,000. From Dallas, the RTA will guarantee 104 round-trips next ski season, with a maximum money cap of up to $800,000. United is also flying two trips per day out of Denver to GUC, but the RTA is not on the hook to guarantee any of those flights.
RTA air consultant Kent Myers said there will be 30,784 available seats into GUC next winter. The RTA target was to obtain 31,000 seats; if United adds a third Saturday flight from Denver that is currently being considered, that goal will be met. Airline contracts and hard pricing should be finalized before the end of the month.
RTA chair John Messner noted that the resort was in a transition period at the moment with a pending sale of Crested Butte Mountain Resort to Vail Resorts. There was some discussion about whether that move would increase demand and if more flights should be explored.
“The winter window for air service schedules is closing,” noted Myers. “Our RTA strategy is that if we get the bump from the Epic Pass and the Vail deal, then we will be happy to run an 85 percent load factor. It’s a win-win. It’s the best thing that could happen. We wouldn’t pay any of the guarantees and it would set us up for the following winter with money at hand to attract more seats. It would be great to get that bump.”
“Having full planes with that schedule would be a great success,” added RTA executive director Scott Truex.
“It would play well with the new ownership,” said Myers.
“Are Houston and Dallas the primary markets for that?” asked Messner.
“There are other low-cost airlines that could fill a gap with other markets,” said Myers. “For example, having an airline like Sun Country fly direct from Austin to Gunnison once a week for under $100 could fill a niche and get people’s attention.”
“I’d prefer we have some flexibility and not hamstring ourselves,” said Messner. “Let’s keep our opportunities open.”
“Houston and Dallas have been our bread and butter. We should wrap those up,” said Truex. “We have some reserves that allow us some flexibility.”
“Guests flying through Denver will give us a boost as well,” said RTA board member Jonathan Houck.
Last season the airport was in the pack of other mountain ski resort airports in terms of load factors with what turned out to be a poor snow season. Myers said GUC had a load factor of about 66 percent in terms of seats filled. Montrose was at 67 percent, Eagle at 60 percent and Aspen at 61 percent.
“We were not alone in the impact of the low snow year,” Myers told the RTA board. “We had more seats and flew more actual people into Gunnison than in the previous year.”
Myers said summer air projections are looking good. “It is brutally hot in Texas and that will send the message for people to get out of there and come up here,” he said. “Everything is headed in the right direction.”
The total RTA budget for guarantee caps will be $1.5 million, with $1.2 million earmarked for winter and $300,000 allocated for summer service.
Winter air will run daily out of Dallas from December 19 through April 1, with a second daily flight from December 19 through January 7. Houston service will run daily from December 19 through January 6 and then on weekends from February 16 through March 17.