This summer could be busiest ever at Yampa Valley Regional Airport

Passengers step off of a Southwest Airline flight 3037 from Denver in February at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.

This summer could see more people traveling to the Yampa Valley by plane than ever before.

In the months of April to August last year, just over 5,000 people were on flights leaving the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, down from nearly 14,000 people in the same months of 2019, according to passenger data.

But air travel is roaring back, with the European Union opening up travel for vaccinated Americans and most major carriers operating at about 85% of flights they flew before the pandemic.

At the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, this is compounded by a 200% increase in seats on planes to and from Hayden this summer, buoyed by expansion of service by longtime local carrier United Airlines and last fall’s addition of Southwest Airlines.

“In the last 20 years, this will definitely be in the top three,” said Airport Director Kevin Booth about how this summer will rank in terms of passengers.

Booth said the increase in seats is likely what made this winter season so successful, with the first three months of the year seeing almost 73,000 people fly out of the airport. This is down slightly from the total of 75,600 for the same months in 2019.

“We did pretty well, and that is because we had a lot more capacity,” Booth said. “We had so many more seats, that 55% of a bigger number is about the same as 70% to 75% of a lower capacity number.”

In January 2020, before the pandemic, there were about 31,000 seats available, but this January that number increased by over 40% to more than 44,000. Even with such an increase in seats, Booth said he believes the demand will continue to be there.

“I don’t think (airlines) would have continued to (add seats) if they didn’t think so,” Booth said. “They know better than I do, but I absolutely think we will go back to something approaching 70%, which is about normal for us. With that capacity, that means our total number of passengers is going to go up significantly.”

United has three daily flights to and from Denver that will run until Labor Day, and Southwest has a flight between Denver five days per week that runs until early November. Southwest also has weekend fights to Dallas Love Field.

Booth said he is also expecting the return of Delta Airlines this winter, which stopped service during the pandemic but has continued to pay rent for space in the airport. Because of the number and price of summer flights, Booth said flying to Denver is more economical than driving.

With the seat capacity this summer, Booth said he is projecting an 85% increase in passengers in 2021. The industry is bouncing back across the country, but Booth said the rebound has been faster for the airport in Hayden.

The increase can’t be credited to the airport’s incentive program, which offers airlines advertising dollars if they start new service. So far, Booth said Southwest declined the offer for this summer, and no other airline has qualified.

“We have been underserved for this period — spring, summer, fall,” said Janet Fischer, director of the airline program for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

Fischer said there have been times when the area had more service. Delta Airlines has offered a flight from Hayden to Salt Lake City, Utah, previously, and there have been flights to Houston, Texas, as well. Fischer said she remembers in the early 1990s when there were a lot of seats in the offseason, with then Continental Airlines flying directly into Steamboat.

Fischer said a good way to gauge a resurgence in air travel is by looking at nationwide screening numbers from the Transportation Security Administration. On May 16, more than 1.8 million people were screened at airport security, the highest mark since the start of the pandemic.

“All of the leading indicators for the airline industry right now are really strong,” said Skylar McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA Colorado. “Folks are sick and tired of being stuck at home, and the airlines are the fastest, most effective way to see the country and the world.”

AAA’s survey data shows the first thing people want to do when they get vaccinated is get on a plane, McKinley said. Business travel has not come back yet, as businesses are still trying to reduce risk for their employees, but leisure travel is already back, he said.

A new request in the travel industry is people looking to travel somewhere for an extended stay of a month or more, something McKinley said they didn’t often see before the pandemic.

“Travel has permanently changed because of the pandemic — that is undeniable,” McKinley said. “2021 is going to be a really groundbreaking year for travel, 2022 even more so, and well into the future. Americans love to travel.”

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