Gunnison-Crested Butte airport seen as a hot market in resort air

RTA ready to guarantee boutique airline with link to Austin

[  by Mark Reaman  ]

When it comes to air travel in the region, the Gunnison-Crested Butte airport is considered a “hot market” with expansion opportunities at all times of the year. That’s according to Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority air consultants Kent Myers and Bill Tomcich.

The two told the RTA board on Friday, May 6 that while air service to most other mountain resort communities is being cut back, interest from air service providers in GUC is expanding. In fact, on top of the expanded daily service being seen this spring and summer from Denver, the RTA agreed to offer a subsidy to a boutique airline that expressed interest in providing business class service between Love Field in Dallas and GUC in the summer of 2022. Those flights will begin in early June.

“Overall, this was probably the best winter in terms of air we have seen,” said Myers. “And that is operationally, financially and capacity wise. It’s all good. All winter was solid, and March was a booming month. Incredible. That momentum is continuing into the spring and summer.”

He said that while the load factors on the spring flights are about the same as in the past, the number of seats coming in has increased so the number of passengers coming through GUC this time of year is up about 43% compared to last year. “The fares are high like everywhere, but I don’t see spring slowing down,” he said.

“That increase in passenger numbers correlate to the increase in the number of seats,” said Tomcich. 

Myers said summer bookings are trending the same with reservations pacing about 35% ahead of 2021. “Every week it seems to build,” he said. “Having three flights a day out of Denver is great and it builds the service. It is a game changer to have at least three flights that provide assurance for passengers. The only question mark is the expense of fuel.”

“It certainly looks like the market here is able to support three flights a day starting June 3,” added Tomcich. “The RTA won’t be putting up money to guarantee flights from Houston this summer but there will still be two flights a week from there. So GUC will see 23 flights a week compared to 21 last year but with the bigger planes there are more seats. Gunnison is the only mountain airport in the region to see an increase in seats. There is 32% more capacity and when compared to similar airports, it is incredible.”

“The pilot shortage is a huge issue everywhere, so airlines are very careful where they fly,” added Myers. “But the Gunnison market is red hot and ready to roll. While every market is losing some service, Gunnison is going up.”

GUC airport manager Rick Lamport said that when a United Airlines executive recently visited Gunnison, he mentioned that Gunnison was considered a “hot market” and United is keeping an eye on it. Lamport said the United executive was also complimentary on the airport terminal improvements.

Support for new style of air service

While not providing summer financial guarantees with United or American, the RTA board agreed to budget $90,000 to potentially guarantee flights with JSX Air. JSX is based out of Love Field in Dallas and expressed interest in serving GUC. Myers described the airline as a scheduled charter operation. He worked with them in California and said the company uses modified airplanes that have just 30 business class style seats. Because of the limited seating, passengers do not have to go through TSA security lines and can in fact bring their pets on board. “It’s all very slick,” he said. “They approached us and are not servicing any other Colorado resort. It is sort of another spinoff indicating how people are interested in Crested Butte and Gunnison.”

Jeff Moffett, a local business consultant who advises TAPP (Tourism and Prosperity Partnership) on air issues, said that the interest was spurred when the prospective new owners of the Elevation Hotel, who have the base area facility under contract, used the service and suggested they look at GUC. “The potential new owner has a familiarity with JSX and is a fan of the company,” he told the board. “JSX is in expansion mode and looking for opportunities.”

Myers said another advantage is that the flight that would service GUC is also linked to Austin, which is a market the RTA has consistently indicated it wants to somehow service.

“TAPP is willing to help with marketing support for this service in Austin and Dallas,” said TAPP marketing director Andrew Sandstrom. 

Moffett said JSX is very sophisticated when it comes to data analysis, and he said the company feels there is good demand for its services to Gunnison.

“Another advantage with a company like JSX is that it is probably small enough to be nimble and adjust to situations on the fly,” said Sandstrom. “It’s an interesting way to open up a new market.”

Lamport said that if successful this summer, the company has already expressed interest in winter service. Sandstrom said that while it is a “high-end experience” the air fares were not expected to be super expensive.

On its website this week, the fare between Dallas and Destin, Florida for a weekend in early June was $758 roundtrip. 

On Wednesday, May 11, JSX sent out a press release announcing the seasonal route. “Introductory fares start at $249 one-way including at least two checked bags, onboard cocktails, and gourmet snacks,” the release stated. “Customers originating in Austin can reach Gunnison with a quick stopover in Dallas. The one-stop same-plane service starts at $349 one-way and will operate on Thursdays and Sundays.”

Board members Steve Morris and Anna Fenerty asked about the climate impacts of such service with 30 passenger planes. “How does it gel with our climate action consensus?” Morris asked.

While specific data was not available at the meeting, there was brief discussion to consider using that metric as part of an equation when evaluating flight support. 

The RTA went into an executive session to discuss negotiations and then publicly took a vote to offer JSX $90,000 in potential subsidies to fly to GUC this summer. The vote was 5-2 with Fenerty and board member Boe Freeburn voting against the move. Service will begin June 30 and run through September 5 with twice a week service. 

Tomcich also informed the board that GUC is in line to get a new navigation system that will make it possible for certain aircraft to land at the airport on the westerly runway with lower visibility than the current technology allows.    

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