GUC airport operations holding up well compared to industry

Load factors better than other western ski town markets

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

For the first time, Crested Butte has surpassed Aspen in local airport load factors—and it has done so more than once this winter. That and other news indicated the Zoom Boom has held true for the local airport in addition to other tourism indicators across the Gunnison Valley, such as sales tax revenues and real estate transfer taxes. In a recent update to the Gunnison Valley Rural transportation Authority (RTA) board, airport officials presented a positive outlook on the close of 2020 and the first months of 2021, despite the ongoing pandemic and slumping national airfare sales.

Fuel sales at Gunnison-Crested Butte (GUC) Airport last year were up 9 percent on the general aviation side, which airport manager Rick Lamport referred to as “our biggest increase year over year for a number of years.” Those numbers reflect a larger number of private flights coming in to GUC as more people avoided commercial flights. Airline ticket sales were down 1 percent, which was expected.

RTA airline consultant Kent Myers said that things have run very smoothly in Gunnison this winter. In the first week of February there was an increase in reservations by 1,567 week over week, he said. In fact, the month of February hit an overall load factor of 68 percent, a new high since the onset of the pandemic. During that time last year reservation numbers had begun to soften before cascading down and essentially halting in March.

He said financials from both United and American Airlines have come in from December, and show a strong picture overall.

“American’s loss was a little more than we expected. But the load factors were soft in December, and people were still kind of hesitant. Since then American has done a very good job with trying to cut back from the airbuses to the smaller CRJ 700 and being sensitive to the aspect of finances on it,” said Myers.

Bill Tomcich, Myer’s airline consultant partner, provided additional data showing that load factors are soft compared to last year across the industry. He said that in fact, American’s 58.6-percent load factor in December was a relatively big achievement.

“There’s no market anywhere that has surpassed that, that I can tell. Those are very strong numbers and that is due largely to the fact that American was able to downgrade one of the flights from an airbus to a CRJ 700.”

Those smaller planes saved both American and the RTA $9,432 per operation, and the total of 30 flights downgraded in December saved $282,960.

“If we had stayed with two daily airbuses, the loss would have been about $455,000 for the month of December,” said Tomcich, and he expects to see similar savings results from January. The daily airbus is back in rotation now, having resumed February 12 since demand is stronger through March. There will be Saturdays where an airbus and a CRJ combine for two daily runs as well.

Comparing overall load factors, United ran a 53.4-percent load factor in December and a 55-percent load factor in January. The next highest performing ski market was Aspen, with 51 percent in December and 50 percent in January.

“This was the first time ever that Gunnison Airport has outperformed Aspen on load factor. For two consecutive months, no less,” said Tomcich.

The third strongest load factor was out of Jackson Hole, followed by Bozeman and Sun Valley. The other mountain airports have not yet released their February data, but Tomcich said he is confident that GUC will remain near the top of the list.

“Total advance bookings for March are actually pacing even stronger than in February.  But because there is more capacity (American is operating six of their seven weekly flights with mainline Airbus A319s and United Houston flights will be operating Wednesday-Saturday-Sunday through the entire month), load factors for March are pacing slightly behind February,” said Tomcich in a follow-up e-mail this week.

The summer Houston flight is loaded, added Myers, and costs are being worked out with United.

Although Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) executive director John Norton could not attend the meeting, he sent an update that the return on winter marketing looks relatively solid, and winter marketing tapers off this week.

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