Our View: Summer air service takes flight
The announcement that United Airlines will launch new nonstop jet service from Houston International Airport to Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden this summer was welcome news. Expanded summer air service has been an item that’s been on the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association’s wish list for years, as well as ours, and we view the added air service from late June through early September as a potential boost for summer tourism.
This past September, when it became apparent that there was a surplus of funds in the Fly Steamboat program, we editorialized that using those funds to add more flights in the summer was vital to the local economy. According to Chuck Porter, head of the Local Marketing District that is financially backing the flights, Houston offers connections to and from 60 domestic cities and 12 international destinations — opening up an array of traveling options for Steamboat’s visitors, second homeowners and locals alike.
This summer’s Houston flight became possible after 2012-13 ski season flights performed well against revenue guarantees, which the LMD board promises in order to close contracts with three major airlines. And we think investing some of the reserves from the winter airline program into efforts to bring new summer flights to YVRA is money well spent.
The addition of the Houston flights puts YVRA right back where it was eight to 10 years ago, when Continental offered a summer flight from Houston to Steamboat on a 50-passenger jet. Back then, the flights were well received and close to 75 percent full. The local business community offered $200,000 in revenue guarantees to support the expanded air service, but eventually, those summer flights were dropped as the cost to secure them was perceived as too high.
In hindsight, had the program persisted, we would be a decade into a proven summer air service program rather than starting all over again.
Because it takes time to develop a new route, we think the LMD, the county, the city, the Chamber and the business community must have the wherewithal to stick with a summer air service program beyond a single summer and make the ongoing investments necessary to ensure the program’s success. It takes effort to attract new air service in more remote destinations such as Steamboat, and as history has taught us, it’s one thing to land a flight but another to make it work during the long haul.
To stay in the game, the traveling public will need to buy into the plan for expanded summer air service. Because of the disparity of pricing between YVRA and Denver International Airport, it is unreasonable to think that summer air service will be supported solely by local families traveling from Steamboat to summer vacation destinations.
Instead, the flights most likely will be filled by people traveling here to escape the summer heat and humidity or by area business travelers who want to save time by flying out of YVRA quickly rather than invest six or more hours of drive time to leave from DIA.
A survey released Tuesday, conducted by Sixel Consulting Group for the Routt County Board of Commissioners, indicates that Northwest Colorado has a passenger market large enough to fill seats, but currently only 14 percent of local passengers are flying out of YVRA. The vast majority of area residents choose to travel to Denver to take advantage of its large supply of deeply discounted fares.
Based on the survey results, it appears there is potential to add additional flights at YVRA, but for summer air service to be successful and for Hayden to serve as a true base for local outbound travel as well as inbound tourist travel, the effort, according to Sixel, would require increased risk mitigation programs, including fee waivers, marketing and ground handling, which all come at a cost.
So for now, we mark the return of direct summer air service from Houston to Steamboat as a promising start, and we’re confident the LMD made the right decision when it opted to tap into its reserves and subsidize flights to make that happen.
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