Airport operations, RTA buses hit their winter stride

Visitation up and marketing focus on the great snow

[  By Katherine Nettles  ]

 A big December snowstorm has turned into a big January marketing campaign for Gunnison County tourism, and it appears the economy is humming along well at both ends of the valley this winter despite setbacks in staffing, COVID cases and snow to move around. According to several updates from the RTA board during their Friday, January 7 meeting, skier demand is strong, and while the terminal renovations at the Gunnison Crested Butte airport (GUC) continue through winter, several functional milestones have been reached to ease air travel; airport visitation is approaching full recovery from pre-2020 levels and spring schedules are already on the books. 

 “We entered what is typically the biggest booking week for the year this week, and the momentum will last for a couple weeks,” said Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) executive director John Norton. “We also launched a major social media campaign focusing on the 99-inch snow storm and the fact that the steeps have opened.”

Norton said the marketing didn’t mention the hiking-only access to the steeps that has mostly been a reality this winter, and said his team assumes the ski area will get some staffing for those lifts “eventually.”

“We’re focusing on the air markets in particular, those air markets that we have collaborated with Vail on and that are likely to go through Denver,” said Norton. He noted that Denver loads are not keeping pace with Houston and Dallas. “So we’re not ignoring Texas, but we are trying to get people on United through Denver.” 

Norton also reported that skier demand is strong. Lodging projections for January, February and March all show an increase in occupancy. 

“I’m happy to say that the lodges up and down throughout the valley are feeling confident enough to raise prices about 15 percent over last ski season. So, we have healthy demand. And we expect to see it all ski season,” said Norton.

He said he is hearing reports that retail and lodging from December appear to be showing an all-time high both up and down valley.

Airport is fine-tuning

GUC airport manager Rick Lamport said the terminal renovation is proceeding well given the delays in 2021. “We managed to start up successfully,” he said of the 2021/2022 ski season. “The major demo impact is now over and the project is in the rebuilding phase. The elevator is now fully working, the new checkpoint is now fully open.” The ground services equipment building is complete, and fencing, security and the bathrooms are all coming together. “For the most part we are able to operate and accommodate the level of ski season flights we have, and that was the major objective for December,” said Lamport. The construction crews are now taking advantage of weather breaks as much as possible.

Meanwhile, Lamport credited his staff for handling many additional jobs lately as airline crews have been in shorter supply and various extra steps with the terminal renovation have required extra hands. Lamport said his staff has been handling airline jobs, luggage, operating the elevator throughout the testing period until it reached full certificate of operation, and keeping a presence on the stairwells for every flight. “But that’s great. It’s our airport, it’s our community, and the more we put into it the more we get out of it,” he said.

“I’ve flown in and out a few times and it’s been great,” commented RTA executive director Scott Truex. He also said Lamport’s staff had been making the process fun for people with luggage jokes and a general spirit that travelers really appreciate. 

“Yes, we’re trying to make the most of things and make it enjoyable for people,” said Lamport. “They do have fun.”

Kudos on buses

RTA bus ridership has been up significantly from last year, and is catching back up to pre-pandemic numbers. Truex said around December 20, they switched to mostly RTA buses instead of vans, and there have been many fewer complaints of people getting left behind or feeling crowded. “We’ve had a few times since then that we’ve run vans, and [staff] posted the routes on the app, so people paying attention to that can be aware, and make different plans if they want to,” he said. “We were running up to 30- to 40 percent with vans prior to that.”

Truex said one of the top winter storms he has ever seen in the area brought some challenges, but overall the buses kept going and Alpine Express in particular did a great job. He said tag axle lifters are finally en route and would soon be installed on buses to improve traction in snowy or icy weather.

“This is something we’ve been trying to get for more than a year…and that should really help our buses getting up the hill,” between Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte.

Spring schedules are set

Airline consultants Kent Myers and Bill Tomcich updated that spring schedules are just in for after the ski season and show a 34 percent increase in April capacity (available seats) from last year with two daily 70-seat flights compared to last year’s two 50-seat flights. GUC is showing the largest year over year increase in regional markets, as well. 

New technology such as modern aircrafts for SkyWest will help GUC fill the gap in which it has lagged behind for many years, said Tomcich. The aging CRJ700 aircrafts have been limited, and several have recently gone through heavy maintenance to get back in rotation. That challenged Aspen, Gunnison and a smaller airport out of California as well during the holidays. One CRJ700 was out of service for six days and caused up to roughly three dozen cancelled and delayed flights across several markets, said Tomcich. “It impacted one or two flights in Gunnison as well,” he said. 

From November 1 through December 16, Tomcich said SkyWest cancelled 20 flights total at GUC, however American Airlines has completed 100 percent of their scheduled flights. “Not all on time, but complete,” he said.

“SkyWest considers GUC a priority market, and they are looking into new technology which could really do a lot for us,” he added. 

Tomcich said the current spring schedules call for two daily flights from March 27 to May 5, then a brief lull with one flight daily from May 6 to June 2 before the summer schedules go into effect starting June 3 with three flights daily from Denver plus two flights per week from Houston.  “Both the May and the preliminary summer schedules are still likely to change as we get closer in,” he said.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape with summer flights right now, especially with last year’s performance” concluded Myers.

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