Airport winter survey shows slight changes in five years

Cost still the biggest factor and it’s still a ski town

By Katherine Nettles

According to a 2019/2020-winter survey, the Gunnison/Crested Butte regional airport shows slightly more locals flying and more people visiting to see friends or family than five years ago.

But airport satisfaction and visitor demographics such as age, family status and income have stayed much the same. A large majority (85 percent) of the airport’s winter visitors still took advantage of the spinning lifts to get on the snow while they were here.

The Gunnison Valley Regional Transit Authority (RTA) released the results of its intercept survey in June. The survey was given to a random sample of passengers in the GUC departure lounge between December 21, 2019 and March 9, 2020, with 486 total participants. The survey ended earlier than expected due to COVID-19, and a similar intercept survey was conducted among departing passengers at GUC in the winter 2014/15 season, with a larger sample size of 612. Many of the survey questions were kept the same as in the previous survey to enable historic comparisons.

The survey focused on airport user demographics, airport selection, trip planning, trip characteristics, previous visits, likelihood of return, flight satisfaction and future airport selection. The largest share of respondents consisted of visitors to the area (80 percent), while 11 percent were full-time residents and 9 percent were part-time residents.

RTA airline consultant Kent Myers introduced the results to the RTA board at their June meeting, noting first that the part-time resident group is very small. That group, he reviewed, is largely from Dallas, stays here less than six months per year and is very affluent. “We’d like to have more of those people,” he said.

Among those who took the survey, the part-time residents and visitors tend to be more affluent than full-time residents, with part-time residents reporting a median income of $249,000, visitors reporting a median income of $173,000, and full-time residents reporting a median income of $118,000. Passengers on the Houston flight tend to be more affluent (median $225,000) than passengers on the Dallas and Denver flights (median $163,000 and $156,000, respectively).

Consultant David Becher with RRC Associates presented the rest of the survey findings. “Overall, there is a high degree of consistency with the results from five winters ago,” he said. The key changes were that there is a higher share of Coloradans in the sample this winter, at 11 percent versus 5 percent previously, he said. That is primarily due to more full-time residents using the airport. There were also fewer Houston visitors (9 percent) than previously (15 percent).

Just over 40 percent of total visitors, part-time residents or not, were from Texas and the next largest groups were 7.5 percent from Oklahoma and 5 percent from Illinois.

The majority (64 percent) were visiting primarily to ski, down from 76 percent in 2014/15. More people than previously said the primary reason for their trip was to visit family and friends (19 percent versus 11 percent).

The median age this time around was 46, versus 47 in 2014/15, and the median household income was $169,000 (down from $185,000 in 2014/15). The largest share of respondents lived in households with children at home (34 percent), followed by couples without kids at home (29 percent), singles without kids at home (20 percent) and empty nesters (17 percent), which were all within one to four points of the previous survey results.

Half of the visitors stayed in paid lodging, and in a new finding about 50 percent of the 2019/20 visitors who downhill skied/snowboarded owned a Vail Resorts Epic Pass product, including 93 percent of part-time residents and 48 percent of visitors. “In general, we are seeing that there is an impact by the Epic Pass,” concluded Myers.

About half of visitors were on their first winter trip here, and the length of stay was slightly shorter than previously, down to 5.1 nights on average from 5.5 nights previously. The survey findings state, “Perhaps in part due to slightly shorter trips, visitors/PTRs were somewhat less likely to participate in hot tub/sauna, shopping/galleries, fine dining, theatre/movie, special event and rest and relaxation than in 2014/15; but more likely to participate in concerts/live music.”

Satisfaction with the airport seems to be tied to cost and reliability; locals and part time residents are much more likely to use other airports, while visitors were not. Locals are also more critical of the airport than visitors, said RRC’s Becher.

A majority of respondents expressed moderate to high satisfaction on availability of seats on desired dates (64 percent in 2019/20 versus 53 percent in 2014/15); type and size of aircraft serving the airport (63 percent versus 61 percent in 2014/15); arrival/departure times from Gunnison (54 percent versus 53 percent in 2014/15); and convenience of flight connections (52 percent both winters).

Half of respondents expressed satisfaction regarding cities served by direct flights (50 percent versus 53 percent in 2014/15); 32 percent were satisfied with the cost of airfare, which was unchanged from the previous survey.

The most important factor expressed in deciding whether to use GUC on future trips to the area was the cost of airfare, selected as the top factor in both years, at 37 percent in 2019/20 and 36 percent in 2014/15.

Survey suggestions included more flight options, better flight timing, more reliable flights and less expensive flights. Many respondents also provided suggestions for the GUC terminal experience, particularly adding food options.

Triple Point Strategic Consulting, air planners and GVRTA assisted with the survey design. The results showed an associated 95 percent confidence interval of +/-4.4 percentage points.

“I think it’s some great information,” said Myers.

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