Yampa Valley Regional Airport on track for record passengers in 2021, and 2022 could be even bigger

A ground crew member directs Southwest Airlines flight 3037 from Denver to where it will be deplaned shortly after the airplane arrived at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. The addition of Southwest last year has helped put enplanements at record levels for 2021.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today archives

HAYDEN — This year, more people will get on a plane at Yampa Valley Regional Airport than ever before, and projections show that will grow even more next year.

Air travel may not have rebounded fully at a national level, but Airport Manager Kevin Booth said 2021 will end with about 154,000 enplanements, which is the number of people who get on a plane. Next year is projected to near 180,000 passengers, double the 90,000 that pandemic-hampered 2020 saw.

“This is the most airlines we’ve ever had — six — and the most destinations — 16,” Booth said. “We’re working toward being able to either host more service from our existing airlines or even additional airlines if they approach us.”

Destinations, especially those with access to the outdoors and open space, were really popular last winter, and airlines flocked to offer flights to places like Steamboat Springs, as business travel was almost nonexistent. But as that travel slowly picks back up and vacationers return to seeking out sunny escapes, Steamboat and other mountain destinations are still popular, and Booth said he thinks the surge is sustainable.

“I think we proved this offseason that there’s demand for air travel in the offseason to come to the Yampa Valley, and I don’t see that going away,” Booth said. “It’s up to us whether we embrace that and try to grow that, and I think that’s the direction we’re headed.”

Last winter season saw more flights than any other because of the addition of Southwest Airlines, despite Delta Airlines opting not to fly out of Hayden last year. The further increase in flights this season is due to the return of Delta flights to Minneapolis and Atlanta, some airlines opting to use larger, mainline planes and more flights in general.

This winter, there will be daily flights to Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, as well as flights to Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Newark, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., offered at least once per week.

“I think the Southwest presence creates a little bit of a competitive response from other airlines, but it is also the continuation that their recovery — a lot of it — is into leisure markets,” said Janet Fischer, director of the airline programs for Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.

United Airlines has serviced the Hayden Airport year-round for several years, but that has typically been with smaller regional jets flown by United Express. This year, Fischer said some of United’s flights will use larger planes that can carry 126 passengers rather than 76.

“The airlines that flew with us last year did pretty well in the midst of the pandemic and have done well in this offseason,” Booth said. “The market has shown the airlines that there’s an opportunity here and that people are traveling to places like Steamboat.”

Flights have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but that isn’t because airlines are not seeing demand, said Skylar McKinley, regional director of public affairs for AAA Colorado.

“If airlines had their druthers, they would have the same capacity that they had in 2019,” McKinley said. “The demand is there; the interest is there. It’s just tough to completely bring the airline industry back to life.”

Demand is between 80% and 90% of what it was in 2019, which was a record travel year, he said. Last year, a lot of the demand was for destinations with access to the outdoors — so much so that Denver actually ranked in the top 10 destinations this time last year.

This year, the trend is shifting back to warmer destinations, which McKinley said is typical.

“Last year, folks could not go to Disneyland; they could not go to an all inclusive resort. Those were largely closed; international travel was shut off,” McKinley said. “It’s back now, and those are the places that folks have been wanting to go.”

McKinley said travel is seen as a right by most people, and about half of vaccinated people in a survey conducted by AAA Colorado said being able to travel was the main reason they got vaccinated.

The survey of 5,000 Colorado residents showed that 69% of them are comfortable traveling, which is actually a decline from earlier this year before the delta variant increased COVID-19 cases once again. About 58% of Coloradans said they were comfortable taking a commercial flight, according to the survey.

Most of the hesitation seen among travelers is with families, McKinley said, which he attributes to the inability to vaccinate children 12 and younger until recently.

“Even if you don’t have travel plans, know that we are going to start seeing a lot more travelers in our communities,” McKinley said. “Folks are coming back to Colorado, They’re coming back to ski. They’re coming back to vacation.”

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