Strong DEN schedule but no guarantees for Houston and DFW delayed
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
It will be easier than ever to catch a flight between Gunnison and Denver this summer, but somewhat harder to get one directly between Gunnison and Houston—and Dallas is off the air travel menu entirely this summer. The Gunnison Valley RTA board agreed unanimously during its March meeting last week that it would not sign a minimum revenue guarantee (MRG) with United Airlines to secure daily flights between Gunnison and Houston this summer, opting instead to focus on daily flights to Denver and accepting Houston flights twice weekly. The board is hoping the bet plays out favorably in an uncertain market of fuel costs and pilot shortages, and that American Airlines will bring Dallas flights back for summers in the future.
RTA airline consultant Bill Tomcich said the 2021-2022 winter air service and load factors for the Gunnison-Crested Butte airport (GUC) have been very good. “We’re working on reliability,” he said of the inevitable weather challenges, but Skywest Airlines has partnered with network carriers like United Airlines and American Airlines to operate flights between GUC and destinations such as Dallas, Houston and Denver. “There has been significant improvement since Skywest took over operations with high flight completion rates,” said Tomcich. “In terms of load factor performance, this has been one of the strongest winters that Gunnison has seen.”
Tomcich’s airline consulting partner Kent Myers said financially, December, February and the first half of March were strong, while January was soft. He predicted that late March into early April would prove challenging as American Airlines continues running its winter schedule from Dallas Fort Worth with large aircrafts to fill.
And spring and summer service will be bigger than ever.
Tomcich said the spring flight schedule from Denver begins March 27 and runs through June 2 with two daily 70 passenger flights. “That’s a first for Gunnison,” he said. “Whether or not the market is there to support it remains to be seen, but we’re going to be tracking advance bookings to see how it performs.” By comparison, Tomcich said last year there were two daily flights with 50 seats each. “I know something the locals really want is a good schedule with a range of access to overnight flights and midday times, and now we have it. So it’s time to really book these flights,” he said.
United will then be increasing service between Denver and GUC to three flights per day from June 3 through September 6, up from two times daily last summer.
“We are increasing air service by 10% this summer and getting three flights daily to Denver, which is a big deal,” said RTA executive director Scott Truex.
The board had to decide what to do with the Houston flight this summer, and after some discussion passed a resolution unanimously opting not to offer United a guarantee on revenue for Houston this year.
Tomcich explained that United did not collect on its MRG from the RTA last summer, due to having run a solid profit through July and early August before incurring losses for August overall as well as September. “We had a strong load factor in July, but then it tapered off to barely 30% by the end of August last year,” he said.
Myers and Tomcich recommended on behalf of the air command that the board go without an MRG this summer, in which case United would be reducing Houston service to two flights per week rather than guaranteeing daily flights. The board discussed how the MRG would help leverage optimal flight schedules and ensure service in the event of changing conditions, such as pilot shortages. But the MRG would also put the RTA “on the hook” for fuel price increases.
Truex said the guarantee on daily flights would cost the RTA around $200,000 and while the money was available, the question was more about how much expansion they really want.
“I really believe that Denver will be more successful,” he said. “And that flight redundancy ought to be very reassuring for people.”
Tomcich added that Denver is a stronger hub than ever since its recent expansion.
RTA board member Roland Mason agreed. “The idea to start the summer program was to eventually get to a point where we weren’t paying an MRG. To me, we’ve completed the mission, even though it isn’t a daily flight. Including Denver, a 10% increase to me overall is success,” he said.
“When we did this service originally, it was a couple times a week,” said Truex.
After winter service ends April 4, there will be no service to Dallas for this summer due to American Airlines’ pilot shortages, but Truex said the board would continue to work for getting a Dallas flight next summer. He said he had a meeting with American Airlines last week, and they are not in a position to launch any new flights until at least 2023.
The board expressed some hope that the Houston flight could be incoming on Saturdays and outgoing on Sundays. “But we would have no say in that,” noted Truex. Myers said he expects to hear from United about its summer schedule in the coming weeks.