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RTA debates best way to expand local air service

More Houston? San Francisco? Atlanta? Off-season?

by Mark Reaman

How to take the next step and expand air service into the Gunnison-Crested Butte  Regional Airport (GUC) was a topic of discussion at the last Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) board meeting. Ideas included increasing the number of winter flights out of Houston; eventually moving into a new market such as Atlanta or San Francisco; or trying to get a minimum of two flights a day into and out of GUC even in the off-season.

RTA airline consultant Kent Myers told the board the safest alternative according to his data analysis was to bring in more flights from Houston. Houston is the number one area for people owning second homes in Gunnison County outside of Colorado. “Our recommendation is to really consider daily service from Houston next winter,” he said. “Houston has a large base of people who know this area and offers air service from other places with good air connections. It would bring in a dramatic increase in the number of seats but connect other markets in the Southeast,” he said. “I’m convinced an increase in Houston service would work with minimal [Minimum Revenue Guarantee cap] risk to the RTA,” Myers concluded.

RTA executive director Scott Truex said he would advise making a three-year commitment to an expanded Houston program if the board decided to move in that direction.

Guaranteeing a daily flight all winter from Houston would result in four flights per day coming into GUC during the ski season with more during the busy holiday periods. Currently winter flights from Houston occur during the holiday period and on weekends from mid-February through March.

“I like the daily Houston idea,” said board member Janet Farmer. “It would give people a lot more flexibility coming in and out.”

Truex and Myers said the board could still pursue the Small Community Air Service Development grant if the federal government makes it available, which is expected to happen before this summer. The idea would be to apply for the grant and hope to use it to begin service in 2021 or 2022. That grant can be used only to help fund new air service that currently doesn’t exist into a small airport.

The staff recommended that the “Atlanta market is the next best option for new non-stop service.” The data indicates that Florida and Georgia rank fifth and tenth, respectively, for out-of-state property owners. A non-stop flight to GUC from Atlanta would provide excellent connectivity to the southeastern United States and Myers reported that Delta Airlines has an ideal aircraft with 109 seats to provide such service. Delta would then be the third “legacy” carrier to provide service to GUC, along with United and American.

Myers said he would contact Delta and see if the carrier would supply a letter of support for the idea in the event the grant were made available.

In the staff analysis, the idea of using the grant to potentially open up a route to either San Francisco or Chicago “falls a distant third or fourth in the analysis.” The analysis showed there are some but not a lot of second homeowners living in those areas; previous attempts to have direct flights from Chicago to GUC have not been successful; and there is not a lot of “brand awareness” with Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

RTA board chair John Messner said his “ultimate goal” is to get a baseline of two flights per day into GUC in the off-season, to go with the three such flights now available in the summer and possible four in the winter, and to continue to build on those numbers.

“It is a chicken and egg situation,” Messner said. “Are people not using the flights in the slow times because of the timing and availability and instead going to Montrose or Denver? If we offered more options would they be used more?”

“It will be interesting to see how those additional days we have in early June this summer out of Houston work,” said Truex. “A few years ago we tried to add more and move into September and it didn’t work out. So I’m a little gun-shy.”

“How you get to twice a day service in the shoulder season is a real challenge,” added Myers. “When talking about that service year-round there are 45 to 60 days a year in the spring and fall that are a real challenge, given the population base here. Larger places like Steamboat don’t have it or are just moving there. Vail only has one flight per day in the spring.”

“The first step is to do it incrementally,” said Messner. “Do we ask for those two flights a day for an extra week?”

Myers suggested the RTA subcommittee—known as the Air Command—should look at the situation “to get their heads around some of the data.”

GUC airline mechanic Eddie Avila was at the meeting and said he had just moved to the area from Denver. “Denver is growing huge right now and people are getting ticked off at the time it takes to get to the ski areas and mountains on the Front Range, it is so crowded,” he said. “I think the numbers here will jump up as more people decide they would rather pay money to come here than wait in line over there.”

The RTA board seemed in agreement to continue pursuing the idea of adding an extra Houston flight to the winter menu as the first priority. The board will also keep an eye on the potential federal grant that could eventually subsidize bringing in a new market to GUC.

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