Local airline bookings back on track for this winter

Vail examining its role in the future

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) flight bookings have caught up—and even passed—last year’s numbers despite a slow start this fall, according to the latest calculations. At the most recent board meeting in January, the RTA board reviewed flight bookings and service updates and also discussed the future of Vail Resorts’ participation in the Air Command.

RTA airline consultant Kent Myers provided updates on how flight bookings are going this winter, and said things have caught up since September and October, when the Air Command was more than 3,100 seats behind last year in sales pacing. Considering an increase of about 10 percent more seats available this year, Myers said there were some big concerns.

“But now we are 1,200 seats ahead of target,” he said, “and certainly on a good path… I’m very bullish about what’s going to continue happening there.”

Myers said that historically at this point in the season, approximately 75 percent of the seats have already been booked. From that estimate, he predicted, “We should end up at about a 70 percent load factor.”

The one exception to that is April, which is the biggest challenge for the airport. American Airlines mandated that flights run until April 6, and Myers said that would be a tough sell.

“We are 0.5 percent booked right now,” chimed in RTA executive director Scott Truex.

“Everything else looks good, it really does,” said Myers. “But I am concerned about it from that standpoint.”

Myers reported that the airport staff is conducting a survey of airport users. Although it’s only in the beginning stages, feedback so far shows the number one issue to be the lack of food service, and that “People would love to have Dallas summer service.” Myers said they have collected 134 surveys so far, and the goal is 1,100. “So we’ve got a little ways to go,” he said.

CBMR analyzing air desk this winter

Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) spokesman Erik Austin responded to the board members’ observation that CBMR has taken a much slighter role in the airport this year. “We only have an air desk,” he confirmed, which allows the resort to sell airfare in addition to hotel and other related vacation bookings. Austin said Vail Resorts is considering its air desk participation for future years. 

“Out of all the reservation services in all the resorts that are under the Vail umbrella, we used to have an air desk in Vail but we no longer do that. It’s unique here in Gunnison with the airport,” he said.

Regarding CBMR’s former airline minimum revenue guarantees, “We don’t have any of those sort of relationships with revenue guarantees at any of the other resorts,” said Austin.

So the company is assessing its Gunnison air desk this winter and whether it is necessary to continue that service in the future. “We didn’t want to make any changes until we see the importance of alignment with what’s going on with the Air Command and the rest of the community. Certainly packaging to get consumers in here is an important part,” said Austin.

If the company decides to continue with the air desk, he said it will take some planning and technology adjustments.

“Consumer habits have changed quite a bit,” he noted.

From three bus trips daily to three flights daily

Truex reviewed the history of the RTA for the board, which formed in 2002 to help with the airport. In 2007, the RTA received its first grant to buy the first bus, and started with three trips a day in the schedule. They expanded air service to Atlanta and Salt Lake in 2008, but the recession hit killed that off quickly. Truex noted that revenue dropped drastically from 2007 to 2008. “We’ve been living on good times lately, but it can happen,” he said.

The RTA started summer air service to Houston in 2014 based on a grant, which lasted four years. The service is now locally funded and sustaining itself.

In 2015, the county voted to remove sunset laws and approved a tax increase, and Crested Butte South bus service started that year. The RTA has since added bus stops, shelters and equipment and system upgrades, like the “Green fleet,” buses, which use compressed natural gas (CNG).

The Air Command partnership was created in 2016, and senior transportation increased significantly beginning in 2017, holding steady ever since. That came directly from the tax increase. In 2019 the RTA rebranded and updated its website.

“I don’t recall the last time we had three daily flights to three different locations,” said Truex. But now, Denver, Dallas and Houston provide just that. American flies from Dallas, and United flies from both Houston and Denver.

“As we know, daily service makes a really big impact on people’s comfort in booking it,” he added.

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