Ski Corp. looks to Delta for West Coast link

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— Resort officials here are watching closely as United Airlines' struggles to emerge from bankruptcy before ski season. At the same time, they are making plans to cover their bets.

"We aren't out of the woods yet, people," Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. marketing executive Andy Wirth recently told a gathering of business leaders.

Wirth is in negotiations with Delta Airlines to fly a 737 here daily from Salt Lake City during ski season. His primary purpose is to backstop the vital connection to West Coast cities that United provides the Yampa Valley through Denver International Airport.

Vacationing skiers headed for Steamboat via Salt Lake would be asked to fly beyond Utah's resorts, including The Canyons, which is operated by Steamboat's parent, American Skiing Co. Wirth said his research indicates there is a reasonable expectation that a daily 737 from Salt Lake would also reach skiers from cities east of Colorado.

Delta has already agreed to operate a 757 here from Atlanta on Saturdays during ski season. Its inaugural flight will mark the first time Delta has flown into the valley. It will also restore a direct connection to the southeastern United States lost in 2001 when TWA was folded into American Airlines. TWA had previously brought more than 8,000 passengers to YVRA each winter on an aircraft that originated from Atlanta with a stop in St. Louis.

The new Atlanta connection will address some of Wirth's concerns with the timing of flights from Dallas on American Airlines. Those flights are loaded into the computers again for next winter. But Wirth has said in previous interviews the timing of some flights resulted in either undesirably long layovers or impossibly tight connections. Connections from hot ski markets in Florida, for example, were difficult to make. The establishment of an Atlanta flight will provide options for many ski vacationers living in smaller southeastern cities.

However, a crucial Chicago connection has not yet been finalized for the winter. Daily flights from Chicago on American were not loaded on computers as of May 30, Wirth said.

"We're neck deep in negotiations," Wirth said.

The resort's airline committee paid $750,000 in revenue guarantees for last year's Chicago flights after load factors and yields were sorted out. Wirth is seeking concessions on this year's contract.

Flights that are more certain include a daily Airbus from Minneapolis on Northwest Airlines (the flight is loaded in travel computers and negotiations are being finalized) and a daily Continental flight from Houston, plus a second flight on Saturday. Continental's connecting flights also provide significant lift from the Eastern Seaboard.

The Saturday flight from Newark on Continental is also a go, Wirth said. That means an unfortunately timed effort to establish a daily flight from Newark in December 2001 has been abandoned, at least for the time being.

The status of a daily 737 from DIA that has been operated by mainline United for several years is in doubt at this time.

Plans for YVRA's connection to DIA via United Express are in computers. Wirth said United is indicating the Yampa Valley will be served by 85-passenger BAE 146 jets again this winter. Air Wisconsin is expected to leave the YVRA route in July, to be replaced by Mesa Airlines flying Dash-8 turboprops for the summer and fall.

Mesa does not have the BAE 146 in its fleet, but United intends for Air Wisconsin to operate the small jets from Air Wisconsin's fleet, while leaving Mesa in place at YVRA as manager of ground services.

Essentially, Air Wisconsin's small jets are the best equipment to serve the route during the four months of ski season, but it doesn't make sense to disrupt ground operations by switching back and forth between two commuter airlines.

Wirth had been attempting to reach a new market in the northeast by arranging direct flights from Philadelphia on US Air, but said those negotiations stalled and it is unlikely that connection can be made in time for this winter.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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