Tourism turbulence

March drags down passenger numbers at YVRA

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— The number of passengers flowing through Yampa Valley Regional Airport slumped by slightly more than 8,000 travelers this ski season compared to last winter.

The decline occurred even though the planes were nearly three-quarters full.

Resort officials knew at the beginning of the ski season that there would be 14-percent fewer airline seats arriving at the resort during the ski season, and that would make it difficult to generate the same number of winter travelers coming to Steamboat this winter. The other side of that coin is that demand for the remaining seats resulted in healthy load factors that may have driven up the airline revenues.

Andy Wirth, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s vice president of marketing, oversees the jet program for the ski area. He said this week he is just beginning to gather data on the yield achieved by the various airlines serving Steamboat on each route they fly. Figures on the yield, combined with load factors, give a more accurate picture of how successful the airlines were, Wirth said.

"It varies from airline to airline, and from route to route," Wirth said.

The question of whether the ski corp.'s and resort community's $2.15 million investment in the airline program might finish in the black depends on those final calculations. They're also dependent upon whether each particular airline receives seat guarantees from the local community or a flat subsidy, Wirth said. The amount of the guarantees can be revised up or down, depending upon performance. But the flat fees don't change.

Wirth said next ski season's flights on Continental from Houston, on American from Dallas and on Northwest from Minneapolis are already loaded into travel agents' computers and being booked. Passenger loads on Northwest this winter were one of the success stories in the overall program, Wirth said. That growth came in spite of the fact that the daily flight departed the Twin Cities relatively early, at 8:55 a.m. The early departure has a greater impact on vacationers trying to connect with it from other cities.

"Northwest Airlines is one of the real bright spots," Wirth said. "That was a huge win. It means we're in a good position going forward with the airline."

Northwest brought 10,380 passengers into Steamboat this winter and the planes were just more than 71 percent full, on average.

Documents on file at the Routt County accounting office show that of a total 120,676 available departing seats out of YVRA this winter, 86,782, or 72 percent, were occupied. Those statistics are for the four-month period of December to March. Commuter airlines at YVRA also brought vacationers here during November. But the commercial jet flights begin each year on Dec. 14.

The industry standard calls for tabulating departures, or "enplanements," rather than arrivals. Routt County owns the airport and tracks enplanements as part of collecting landing fees.

Continental, which flies daily to Hayden from Houston and on Saturdays from Newark, achieved a load factor of 81 percent, and American, with daily flights from Dallas, wasn't far behind at 79.7 percent. Continental flies 124-passenger Boeing 737-700s here from Houston and American flies the 188-passenger Boeing 757.

However, the enplanements at YVRA took a big hit in March, when 5,449 fewer travelers boarded planes to head home from the Yampa Valley. In March 2001, 26,309 passengers departed from the airport, compared to 31,758 during the same month a year ago. Still, the planes leaving YVRA were 77 percent full in March, and it was the busiest month of the ski season at the airport.

January, when 25,394 passengers flew out of the airport, was the only month of the ski season showing a year-over-year increase. That trend may reflect a rebound from Y2K fears in January 2000 that kept many vacationers close to home.

Wirth said he believes it is more instructive to look at each airline and each route flying into YVRA to determine how it's performing, rather than to compare overall enplanements to last year.

The two most important goals are simply getting people here, and keeping the cost at a manageable level, Wirth said.

The 14-percent drop in available seats this year is almost entirely due to the lack of direct flights from Chicago, Wirth said. The flight was dropped because the airlines were demanding unusually high guaranteed money to come here from that city. And it's very clear, Wirth said, that the improved load factors this year were to a significant extent a result of the overall reduction in seats. For example, the ski corp. has data to show that much of Northwest's success on the Hayden route this winter was a result of the Chicago flight being dropped. But you don't really understand the impact of the missing Chicago flight and its impact on Minneapolis, Wirth said, until you know the true point of origin for most passengers on those flights.

"We know for a fact the New York City airports (La Guardia, Kennedy and Newark) are the three biggest contributors to any flight from Chicago or Minneapolis," Wirth said.

Typically, between 28 and 40 percent of the passengers on a flight from Newark, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles or any of the other large cities where flights to Hayden originate from actually started their traveling day in that city, Wirth said. The balance of the passengers come from between 50 and 75 other, smaller cities.

Wirth is paying particular attention this spring to the unfolding change in the commuter airlines serving the Yampa Valley. Air Wisconsin and Great Lakes Aviation, flying as United Express, accounted for 40 percent of the available seats this past winter.

The ski corp. has not negotiated directly with the commuters in the past, but instead with United Airlines. Air Wisconsin will not serve YVRA this summer as it did in the summer of 2000, but United plans to bring it back for next ski season. In the meantime, Great Lakes, operating under a new agreement that allows it to code share with Frontier as well as United, will be the sole carrier here this summer. That means Great Lakes will no longer fly as United Express, but will still offer transfer of baggage from United passengers under a code-sharing agreement.

Wirth said the ski season airlift afforded by the commuter airlines is critical, and he's being careful not to overlook the changing landscape.

Air Wisconsin, apparently at the urging of United, has embarked on a plan to convert its fleet from turboprops to small regional jets. It's not clear whether those 50-passenger jets would fly into YVRA in the near future.

Air Wisconsin came out on top in terms of sheer number of passengers carried, in spite of the fact that it flies 32-passenger Dornier turboprops. Air Wisconsin's volume at YVRA is due in part to the fact that it operates four flights a day, and to the fact that it operated for a month in early ski season before the larger airlines began landing in Hayden in mid-December.

Air Wisconsin actually had the lowest load factor among the eight airlines flying regular schedules into YVRA.

Midway's fledgling service into Hayden from Raleigh/Durham, N.C., achieved a load factor of 61.9 percent, which would have looked competitive last ski season. Wirth said Midway flew twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Saturday's load factor was particularly encouraging and he's hopeful that airline will return next winter.

TWA, which originates its daily flight in Atlanta and continues to St. Louis before arriving in Hayden in early afternoon, showed a substantial increase in its load factors, up to 74.3 from 58.8 the previous ski season.

TWA, which was absorbed by American this week, saw one of its MD-80s mistakenly land in Craig instead of Hayden on March 14. Interviews with the passengers of that flight showed they came from all over the southeastern U.S., including cities in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Louisiana.

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