Winter air traffic expected to be robust this season

RTA offers to guarantee JSX flights from Austin for $180K

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

Despite fewer seats coming into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Airport this ski season, it does not appear there will be a drop-off in the number of passengers deplaning in Gunnison this winter. Reservations to this point are showing that compared to the same time last year, the same number of people have bought tickets for an airline seat this winter despite there being 4,500 fewer seats. That is resulting in higher load factors for the planes.

Members of the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) have also made a $180,000 guarantee offer to the boutique air carrier JSX to fly 40 round trips direct from Austin to Gunnison. Along with the 72 JSX roundtrip flights already committed by the business-class hop on jet service to originate in Dallas (with no RTA guarantee), RTA air consultant Kent Myers said that “should help close the gap of the seat loss experienced by GUC.”  

Myers said that compared to similar resort community airports, GUC is trending extremely positive. “Overall, the air service is like a rocket ship,” he said at the November 4 RTA meeting. “We are not seeing any dip at this time. That could change, but I am cautiously optimistic.”

JSX will be presented with the RTA offer and can accept it or not. But the air carrier did extremely well this past summer with the direct flights out of Dallas and the hope is that JSX Austin service will see similar success. In a survey conducted this fall, the passengers using JSX to fly into Gunnison were described as higher-end and travel-savvy. Their incomes were logged at an average of $250,000 or more and many using the flights were second homeowner families. Activity preference topped out with golf and fishing compared to hiking and scenic driving for passengers of the regular commercial airlines.

Myers said he did not expect to see many passengers bleeding from the American Airline flight that originates out of Dallas, but he admitted it could reduce some first class airline seats that normally might be sold on that flight.

When it came time to vote on whether to extend JSX the $180,000 guarantee offer that included a promise that the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) would help market the flights, RTA board member Anna Fenerty voted against the idea.

As for the general winter air outlook, TAPP executive director John Norton indicated it appeared good but the holiday period “looked a bit soft at the moment.” He postulated that could be because both Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on the weekend this year. He said Vail sold fewer Epic Passes this year compared to last, but he did not think there would be a comparable drop-off with Crested Butte skiers. He said the downturn likely came from casual skiers and Crested Butte attracted more dedicated skiing enthusiasts. 

“We are marketing to skiers across the United States with an emphasis in Texas,” he said. “We are hoping that the JSX addition will help with overall skier numbers.”

The survey says…

As for the survey of GUC passengers conducted by RRC Associates this summer and fall, the last one was done in 2014. Dave Becker of RRC said of 2,216 completed surveys, 65% were visitors, 20% were second homeowners and 15% were full-time residents. Texas residents dominated the passenger count logging in at 29%. Colorado was next at 15% and California was third at 7%. Fifty-nine percent of the people surveyed were repeat users of GUC.

According to the data, the primary reasons for coming to the area was the scenic beauty, the recreation opportunities and the climate. Hiking and scenic driving were the top activity choices of the passengers followed by shopping and fishing. Most stayed in Mt. Crested Butte followed by Crested Butte, Gunnison and then the rest of the county. Because there were so many second homeowners, the average stay logged in at 9.5 nights. Almost three quarters of the visitors, 74%, said they would highly recommend a visit to the Crested Butte/Gunnison area. 

As for the airport itself, the people surveyed said they used it given the convenient location to their destination. They also felt the airport was easy to use. The biggest detriment cited in the survey was the cost of tickets and lack of direct flights from other U.S. cities. Reliability issues were also mentioned as a detriment.

Becker said that compared to the 2014 survey, the demographics indicated a slightly younger and less affluent client was using GUC. The average age this past summer was 47 compared to 51 in 2014. The median income this year came in at $167,000 compared to $179,000 eight years ago. Lodging stays as a percentage dropped about 10% while people staying with friends and relatives increased. 

“I can’t say enough good things about the winter air program right now,” concluded Myers. “Especially since there are 9% fewer available seats.”

And finally, GUC airport manager Rick Lamport said the terminal improvement project is almost finished. He said a public grand opening is slated for December 9 at 4 p.m. The public is invited to come by, ride the escalators (because we are country bumpkins) and see the other improvements that were included in the project.

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