EAGLE—In terms of how destination guests get to Eagle County, and in particular, how they spend their money here, Eagle County Regional Airport (EGE) is the best way to keep their dollars in the local economy.
So says Chris Romer, executive director of the Vail Valley Partnership. To doubters, he points to the $980 million the airport produces every year in local total economic impact.
“There’s no net positive for guests to fly into Denver,” he said.
The numbers and their potential are the main reason why VVP is taking on the oversight for EGE Air Alliance, a coalition that formed in 2003 to raise funds to guarantee flights into the local airport. On the one hand, there’s the aforementioned economic impact. But on the other hand, the Alliance had been working with too few players to raise the kind of money to sustain and grow the local flight programs. With the backing of local municipalities and a scant 20 area businesses, it didn’t have the needed scale, Romer said.
The idea is to help support flights from viable destinations until they generate enough business to run on their own. Romer said the summer daily American Airlines service from Dallas is a good example of how that has worked.
He said the Partnership wants to develop a far broader base of support among businesses – more than 200 – and create a funding plan that would triple the current fundraising efforts to $1.2 million a year. The group plans to continue working on a consulting basis with Kent Myers, a former senior vice president for Vail Resorts and recently director of EGE Air Alliance.
Myers said the economics of flying large planes is not a simple matter, considering that it costs $60,000 to run a Boeing 757 round-trip from Miami, for example.
“All of a sudden it becomes huge money,” he said. Looking at a daily winter flight schedule from Miami, “potentially you’ve got a $6 million risk.”
Myers noted that Vail Resorts has long been the key player in supporting the airport and helping develop flight programs, and that for more than 20 years it was the sole company supporting winter flights. That has changed, he said, with Vail Resorts looking to more community participation.
“They shouldn’t be the only dog in the fight,” he said.
Myers said that VVP’s new umbrella role with the air alliance will help promote the local air programs to a broader range of businesses, and help communicate how the system works. When it comes to how flights are arranged and funded, most people “don’t have any idea,” he said.
This winter’s flight schedule is close to the 2011-2012 season’s, minus a weekly flight from New York’s La Guardia. That’s a concern, but if the changeup for the local air alliance needed a lynchpin, it was the cancellation in September of a new Saturday United flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport, which would have started for the winter season.
“The reason it fell through was lack of community funding,” Romer said.
Pointing to the resilient economy in D.C. and northern Virginia and the vacation spending habits of people who live there, Romer said the cancellation was a big reason why Eagle County needed to “hit the reset button.” He added that no other ski area currently has service from D.C.
Other factors played into VVP’s decision to take the lead with the Alliance. According to Romer, 20 percent of available seats have been lost over the past five years, due to issues such as airline consolidation (Delta and Northwest, United and Continental) and the use of smaller planes.
The 757, known for its navigability in mountain locales, has been widely used at the Eagle County airport. Boeing stopped making the 757 in 2004, and planes such as the smaller Airbus 319 are gaining favor.
Theoretically, each seat that is lost is a lost opportunity for money in Eagle County. The average guest flying into Eagle spends $2,000 locally, according to Romer.
He adds that from the guest perspective, the local airport adds to satisfaction scores. “It’s a better guest experience than flying into Denver.”
And as Vail and Beaver Creek compete with destinations such as Park City, Utah – which boasts a brief 45-minute trip from the airport – he says it’s important that Eagle County can make a similar offer.
Eagle County Regional Airport is slightly more than a half hour’s drive to the ski areas. Coming in from Denver International Airport, guests have a two hour, 15 minute drive to Vail when the roads are dry. Conditions at Eisenhower Tunnel and Vail Pass can add considerable time, not to mention white knuckles for the unfamiliar.
There’s also the matter of keeping the Eagle County airport viable in comparison with other commercial service airports in Colorado. A 2008 airport economic impact study by the Colorado Department of Transportation showed Denver International having a total economic impact of $22.3 billion. That includes direct impacts relating to airport operations and aviation services; indirect impacts associated with visitor spending off-airport; and induced impacts such as an airport employee using a paycheck to buy goods and services and contributing to the economic cycle.
The Colorado Springs Municipal Airport came in at $3.5 billion, while Aspen/Pitkin County was just over $1 billion. Eagle County’s airport came in fourth at $980 million.