Changes in the air

Air Wisconsin leaving for the summer

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— Commercial air service into the Yampa Valley will be reduced to a single commuter airline for seven and a half months of the year beginning May 1.

But a local travel agent said she doesn't believe the flying public will notice a big change this summer.

"I don't think there will be a big difference," said Shirlee Finney of Great Escape Travel. "The schedule is very similar to last summer. One type of aircraft has been changed for another, the Dornier for the Brasilia. The big change is in the relationship among the airlines."

Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden is served year-round by two commuter airlines, Air Wisconsin and Great Lakes Aviation, which both operate as United Express. That's about to change.

Under a new arrangement with United Airlines, Great Lakes will continue "code sharing" with United, but will no longer fly as "United Express." Air Wisconsin will continue to fly into Yampa Valley Regional Airport during ski season only, from mid-December through April. The airline will leave the airport after its last flight on April 30, not to return until mid-December.

A spokesman for Great Lakes said Wednesday his company's code share with United will be dropped when Air Wisconsin returns for ski season.

"That's a problem for next year," Great Lakes Senior Vice President of Marketing Dick Fontaine said.

Essentially, a code-sharing arrangement assures passengers that if they book flights that include travel on both a commuter airline and a larger carrier, their baggage will be transferred from one airline to another at a hub airport. But there's more to it than that. The schedules of the two airlines are coordinated, and the larger airline typically honors miles on the commuter in its frequent flier program.

Frontier Airlines, the second leading major carrier out of Denver International Airport, has announced it is negotiating with Great Lakes on its own code sharing arrangement. If Great Lakes gets together with Frontier, it could increase the options travelers in Northwest Colorado have for connecting with the nation's air travel system Denver-based Frontier serves 23 cities coast to coast with a fleet of 25 Boeing 737s. Great Lakes Senior Vice President of Marketing Dick Fontaine said he's confident the code sharing agreement with Frontier will be in place this summer. "It will actually be like having two airlines for Steamboat passengers this summer," because of the availability of connecting fares on both United and Frontier, Fontaine said. He expects the destinations on Frontier's route map to increase as it takes delivery of new Airbus jets.

Fontaine said his company plans on serving the Yampa Valley for the long haul.

"We're excited about Steamboat Springs and the possibility of being a permanent fixture there," he said.

Fontaine promised a reduction in fares between Steamboat and Denver International Airport, and said his company would work with local travel agents to add extra flights to accommodate groups flying in and out of Steamboat.

Finney, of Great Escape Travel, said she felt better about the change in air service Feb. 14 when she saw an updated schedule showing eight departures a day from YVRA to Denver.

"Ten days ago they were showing just five flights a day," Finney said. "I feel better about the schedule today. They're showing eight flights and half of them are on Brasilias."

Finney was referring to the 30-passenger EMB-120 Brasilia turboprop, which is the larger of the two aircraft in the Great Lakes fleet. The other is the 19-passenger Beech 1900-D. Great Lakes, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., flies eight Brasilias compared to 40 Beech 1900s.

Fontaine confirmed that of eight daily flights originating at YVRA during the height of the summer season, four will be operated on the Brasilia. The aircraft is comparable in size and speed to the 32-passenger Dornier currently flown by Air Wisconsin. The Beech 1900 has one distinct advantage over the Brasilia during the heat of the summer, because it is not weight restricted departing YVRA, Fontaine said. He said there would be some days this summer when the Brasilia would not be able to carry a full load of passengers and baggage because of the lower amount of lift it generates at high elevation.

The flight schedule that pops up on travel agents' computers this week for July 4 travel out of YVRA shows the first flight leaving at 7:30 a.m. followed by a Beech 1900 at 9:25 a.m. The two types of aircraft continue to alternate with departures scheduled at 11:28 a.m., 12:14 p.m., 2:08 p.m., 3:29 p.m., 4:58 p.m. and 5:58 p.m.

Finney said she was particularly pleased to see the 7:30 a.m. departure.

"That's important for business travelers," Finney said. "We got a good early departure."

Fontaine said he expects that schedule to begin June 6 or June 7 and continue through Labor Day. He said Great Lakes will continue with seven flights a day during September, October, November and the first two weeks of December.

Fontaine said the cost of aviation fuel is having a major impact on airfares this year, but he thinks there is room to reduce fares for travel to and from Denver.

"The fares are too high," Fontaine said. "We're going to address roundtrip travel between Hayden and Denver, which isn't being done right now. We can't do it until we take over, but the fares will go down."

Fontaine said the cheapest fare available for reservations made three days in advance for one-way travel are $184, and $188 for a roundtrip. He envisions the one-way fare could be cut to $100 and the roundtrip fare also will go down.

Sandy Evans-Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, said local airline passengers will be watching closely to see if Great Lakes' fares will be reasonable, the service will be dependable and the flights will be timed to adequately meet the banks of flights cycling through DIA.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport Manager Jim Parker said he'll be interested to see how dedicated Great Lakes is to serving his airport without the strength of a more formal United Express relationship with the larger airline. If revenues decline, that resolve could be tested, he said.

"As a code-share airline, they're out there on their own," Parker pointed out. However, he said if the community wants commercial air service, it's important to support Great Lakes. "It's use it, or lose it," Parker said.

The move by United is related to its plan to convert its United Express fleet to 50-passenger regional jets. The company is reportedly negotiating with Canadian and Brazilian aircraft manufacturers on an order for 75 of the small jets, with the possibility of a deal for 75 more.

Fontaine said he thinks it's unlikely that United Express would come back to YVRA next summer with either the regional jets or the slightly larger BAE-146 which is serving the airport this ski season.

"There are a lot of opportunities out there for those aircraft," Fontaine said. "We intend to flood the market. We think the turboprops are ideal for markets requiring flights of an hour or less. The optimum number of flights is 11 or 12. That number keeps people out of their cars."

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