Newark flights scaled back

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— Direct flights from Steamboat's biggest single market, the New York City area, have been scaled back from daily to once a week, but resort officials are cautiously optimistic about a planned return to daily flights next month.

In a scheduled scale back, from this week to mid-February, Continental Airlines will offer direct flights between Yampa Valley Regional Airport and Newark, N.J., only on Saturdays.

"Passengers booked to date from Newark are up over the year prior," Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said. "But we still have some mid-week soft spots," when the daily schedule resumes in February.

Overall, Steamboat's ski season jet flights were up in December 2002, compared to December 2001. Arriving passengers grew by 1,115, to 16,486, last month.

Air Wisconsin (flying as United Express), Continental, Northwest and United all saw passenger numbers increase. Only American was down slightly.

So far this ski season, 5,800 passengers have booked flights into YVRA from Newark, which serves the greater New York City area, Wirth said. That compares to 3,600 at this time last year. Interpreting those figures is problematic; people in the New York area were still reluctant fliers in December 2001 and January 2002, because of the lingering effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Steamboat officials held out high hopes for the Newark flights in summer 2001 as New York represents Steamboat's biggest single market. It was hoped that the initiation of daily flights from Newark in the 2001/02 ski season would boost winter tourism here. To no one's surprise, Sept. 11 changed the landscape.

Wirth went to Continental officials in December 2001 to propose running the daily flights close to the December holidays, scaling back to weekly flights in January and early February, then hitting the market hard again with a daily schedule during the prime winter vacation weeks beginning Presidents weekend and continuing through March. The intent was to reduce the risk for Steamboat's resort businesses, including the ski area, which contribute cash to make up the revenue guarantees that lure the airlines to fly the YVRA route.

The variable schedule, something the airline would not have agreed to pre-Sept.11, was a success, Wirth said. An unintended consequence of the post-9.11 strategy shift was that Steamboat succeeded in negotiating with Continental for a split schedule again this winter.

People who visit the airport near Hayden frequently reported that in December, some flights arriving from Newark carried very few passengers. Wirth said the situation is easily explained.

The holiday daily service from Newark was essentially a two-week program, he said.

The first flights arriving from Newark carried reasonable loads, but the first few return flights were essentially "dead-heads" because there were no New York passengers winding up ski vacations and returning home. Similarly, soon after the New Year holiday, the last daily fights weren't transporting many new arrivals to Steamboat, but were arriving primarily to pick up return passengers.

"It's important to step back and look at the entire season," Wirth said.

Wirth's biggest concern about the balance of the ski season jet program is a decline in the Dallas market, serviced by American Airlines. The real problem with the flights on American Airlines lies beyond Dallas in cities like Atlanta, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, he said. Potential Steamboat vacationers are having a difficult time making reasonable connections to YVRA through American's hub in Dallas.

The explanation lies in the airline's shift to a "rolling hub," Wirth said. For years, airlines have timed large banks of flights to arrive at their main hubs in close proximity to one another. The banks typically were timed three to four hours apart. American has gone to a higher frequency of smaller banks timed just 60 to 90 minutes apart, Wirth said.

"It limits the number of possible connections," Wirth said. The impacts aren't so great for destinations that receive multiple flights from Dallas each day. But for YVRA, with only one flight a day, connections are more difficult.

For passengers in some American cities beyond Dallas, the flight from their hometown to Dallas arrives less than 35 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure for the Yampa Valley. That's too short a time to book connecting flights, Wirth said. In the case of Atlanta, skiers bound for Steamboat were confronted with a three-hour layover in Dallas. Those kinds of flight arrangements deter vacationers, Wirth said.

Wirth and Ski Corp. airline expert Janet Fischer were able to meet with American's schedule planners in November and adjust the timing of the Steamboat flight, Wirth said, but the changes came too late to improve the situation for December.

It remains to be seen how passengers connecting through Dallas on American will respond late in the ski season.

Wirth was unwilling to provide more detailed figures about the performance of the Dallas flight and the airline program in general.

He said American Skiing Corp. is in a "quiet period" as it prepares to release long-awaited earnings reports later this month. Company higher-ups have cautioned him against releasing optimistic projections about the balance of the ski season because of federal Securities and Exchange regulations that prohibit company officials from making statements that could influence stock prices.

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