Bus ridership is down significantly
By Mark Reaman
More people are flying to the valley than originally expected because of the coronavirus pandemic and the expectation is this will continue into the fall as airlines are not only maintaining, but slightly expanding, the number of seats slated to come into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC) for September.
Gunnison Valley Regional Transportation Authority air consultants Kent Myers and Bill Tomcich reported that the air situation for the area was in pretty good shape.
“Summer is tracking better than expected,” said Myers at the August 7 RTA board meeting. “The July load factor is about 47 percent, which is very good. August is coming in at a 40 percent factor. There are a lot of close-in bookings. In Vail, it appears those with second homes are extending their stay into September and October and I wonder if that is happening here.”
“United is going from flying in a 50-seat aircraft to using a 70-seater in September,” added Tomcich. “Gunnison is one of the only places I’ve seen with an expansion of capacity in September. I think we’re in good shape.”
“Summer is performing pretty well and September will have more seats coming in than ever before,” concurred Myers.
Tomcich told the board that while airlines are usually quite competitive, they are working together to establish safety protocols due to the COVID-19 situation.
“Safety is an area where the airlines are working together and sharing best practices to restore customer confidence,” Tomcich said. “They want to dispel the misconception of an aircraft that there is stale air in a metal tube. The air is actually changed very frequently on an aircraft and it is probably as clean as any air in any public place.”
Looking to the winter season, Myers said both American Airlines and United Airlines are being quite “flexible” with potential schedules. “We have a couple of proposals out to them in regard to frequency. American is being very bullish about flight schedules. DFW [Dallas-Fort Worth] is the busiest airport hub in the world and American is a big part of that. United is more conservative, but Denver remains one of their prime focuses.”
Myers said the RTA would remain under the budgeted $750,000 in winter airline guarantees with the airlines but no contracts have yet been finalized.
He informed the board that United has tentatively scheduled a flight from Denver to GUC that will come in during the late afternoon and stay overnight in Gunnison. This is a prime flight that has not happened at GUC in many years. By having an overnight flight, ski resort guests can catch the first early-morning flight of the day and reach their destinations, especially those in the eastern United States, at a reasonable time of the day.
While there are no schedule details on that flight yet, Myers said, “It positions the customer really well, especially those that are flying east.”
RTA executive director Scott Truex said generally it looks like there will be a daily American flight coming into GUC from Dallas for the ski season. Houston service will be more limited. “There will probably be daily flights during the holidays and during the spring from Houston,” he said. “It is likely there will be no or limited service between January 5 and February 11 and then likely a few times a week through the end of March.”
Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) executive director John Norton told the board his organization is preparing to launch marketing efforts to support the winter air program and get people to fill the seats for the coming winter. “The plan is to start in October and November and we will begin with a strong push to sell seats. The focus will be in both Dallas and Houston for winter,” he said.
Summer bus ridership has been off significantly for the RTA buses running up and down the valley. Truex said ridership was off about 59 percent in July and buses have been averaging about nine passengers per trip. Buses are permitted to carry up to 24 people on each trip. He said in July there were three times some people were left behind because of the capacity restrictions. He also said the late-night bus leaving Crested Butte for Gunnison is seeing an uptick in ridership.
Alpine Express executives attended the meeting and went over their safety protocols that were implemented early in the pandemic. “We are proud we were able to react and continue to provide service early in the pandemic,” said Alpine Express operations manager Pam Cook. “We took the appropriate protocols with drivers and cleaning procedures. We have been proactive to keep the team and the riders safe.”
Truex said a hoped-for state grant to pay for the future facility at the Whetstone Industrial Park will not likely come through in full, given the coronavirus situation. He told the board he is still hoping to get $600,000 out of the grant pot this year and he will apply for another $900,000 in future grants.
Truex said, “We hope to use the land purchase as the local match that is required. The goal is to get the building constructed in either 2021 or 2022. The plan is to use the building to store RTA buses as well as CDOT’s Bustang-Outrider buses that run to Denver and hopefully to Montrose in the future. We want to be ready when the Little Blue Canyon road project on Highway 50 is finished so we can be in a good position to start service from Crested Butte to Montrose when CDOT’s Bustang-Outrider service is ready to serve that route.”