“The burden is going to be on us to fill those seats”
By Katherine Nettles
There are several unknowns about Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional airport (GUC) flight schedules and consumer demand this summer, but United is bumping up its flights in July from Denver to Gunnison and bringing in larger aircraft due to shuffling its aircraft inventory elsewhere. August remains a wildcard, and so is winter—but there is already talk of winter flight airline contracts as well.
David Clayton, citizen representative to the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority’s Air Command Committee, spoke of mostly chaos and confusion among those in the airline industry in an air command update at the June 5 RTA meeting.
“The word in the aviation industry, I think, is ‘confusion’ right now. Things are changing on a minute by minute basis, as far as what airlines want to fly and what kind of load factor they’ve got,” Clayton said.
RTA airline consultant Bill Tomcich said that despite uncertainty, GUC tracks favorably on reliability and that might carry over to consumer demand.
“Gunnison airport hasn’t seen a single flight cancellation since mid-April, ever since all the airlines reduced their schedules. Once the final first quarter numbers come together, I think it will be interesting to compare some reliability numbers of the Gunnison airport to other mountain airports throughout the mountain west. I think you’ll see that Gunnison actually tracks rather favorably in terms of overall reliability. And I think that will be a number that is worth promoting, to generate more confidence in air travel,” Tomcich said.
Tomcich relayed that confidence in air travel is the number one focus of all the airlines, and said airlines are branding their cleanliness programs in an attempt to restore confidence in air travel.
“Once they overcome that burden, then we might see a lot more demand. I think everyone agrees there’s a lot of pent-up demand for travel across the entire industry,” he said.
Tomcich added that United Airlines has been very flexible at adding capacity when they are short. He said in June, the Houston to Denver flight was sold out and United immediately added additional aircraft along that route within a matter of days.
While United has removed its direct Houston to Gunnison flights and removed its third Saturday flight, its Denver to Gunnison flights are being upgraded from a 50 passenger express jet to one with 70 passenger seats as the airline shifts its 50-seat aircraft to other uses. The net effect is going to be an overall flight increase.
The July schedule, running July 6 to August 2, will change to twice a day service out of Denver with the 70-passenger airplanes. Tomcich pointed out that going from 15 flights per week at 50 seats to 14 flights at 70 seats would actually increase the seats by 30 percent.
“We’re going to have more seats than any other mountain community,” predicted RTA airline consultant Kent Myers. Overall, Myers said the change will be minimal. “If you look at the numbers, it’s only a 20 percent decrease in the seats that we had last year if you take the core summer service. We are a little short on seats at the end of June because we are kind of stuck with the schedule that we had with three days a week. But starting with July 6, we will ramp it up and we basically have 140 seats inbound versus 176 seats inbound last year. So it’s kind of a challenge for us. There may be some other hiccups,” said Myers, referring to a national jobs report from the day before showing increased losses.
“Right now I feel very fortunate for Gunnison and Crested Butte. Here we are with the available seats. What we don’t know is if [United Airlines is] going to continue that service into August.
“I think it’s a terrific schedule. It looks like we have enough seats, I just hope we don’t have too many,” concluded Myers.
“I share Kent’s concern,” said Tomcich. “We are going to have quite a few seats, quite a lot more seats in Gunnison relative to other mountain communities. So the burden is going to be on us to fill those seats.
“What they do beyond August 2, it’s really a month to month basis as the airlines continue to monitor demand,” concluded Tomcich.
American Airlines announced it was going to take a more bullish approach, Tomcich said, taking a 55 percent reduction from what had been published previously. United is going to a 75 percent reduction, up from the 90 percent reduction they have had in place for May and June.
Tomcich also reported that a surge in passengers to mountain towns has been surprising people, particularly in Aspen. He also said the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported its biggest day of passengers since COVID started.
“People are starting to fly again,” Tomcich said. “There are a lot of encouraging signs out there, and I think the capacity for the GUC is well poised to meet that demand should it come to fruition here, particularly in the month of July.”
And the board concluded that it’s not too early to start thinking about winter flights, despite the uncertainty in the market. The RTA board discussed signing contracts with airlines for 2020/2021 air service.
“Over half of our passengers in winter come in from Dallas, so we really want to preserve that flight,” noted Truex.
The board authorized chairperson Janet Farmer to sign contracts with airlines for winter air service at a cost of up to $750,000.