YVRA seeks a backup plan

United woes have officials looking to Delta, Salt Lake

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— The Yampa Valley may be forced to depend on Salt Lake City, Utah, for summer air service this fall if United Airlines is unable to emerge from bankruptcy.

Community leaders are investigating the possibility that commuter airline Sky West, cooperating with Delta Airlines, could fly to Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Details have not been worked out. City, county and business leaders in Steamboat Springs remain hopeful scheduled service on United Express will continue this spring, summer and fall.

An ad hoc committee of local business and government leaders has been trying to develop contingency plans in case United, the nation's second largest airline, should be forced to liquidate this spring. United, through Air Wisconsin flying as United Express, represents the only year-round commercial air service into the valley. Including a daily ski season 737 from Denver, the airline flies 50,000 seats here annually.

The resort community and the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. negotiate directly with other airlines to attract direct jet flights from cities like Dallas, Houston and Chicago.

The United Express flights are particularly important because they are "free" in that they do not required the business community to put up flight revenue guarantees.

The planning process became more urgent this week when United officials publicly acknowledged that, unless the company succeeds in negotiating reductions in its labor cost with labor unions, it could be forced to liquidate its assets.

A veteran Steamboat travel agent told the committee this week the consequences of the loss of regular airline service this summer would be serious for her biggest client. The Industrial Company, or TIC, is a billion-dollar contractor based in Steamboat.

"The impact on TIC would be tremendous," Shirlee Finney of Great Escape Travel told the committee.

The company books flights for about 30 people a week from its corporate headquarters alone, Finney said. That doesn't include employees it brings to Steamboat for extended training sessions. The company also flies in about 400 people each July for an annual meeting.

The airline wants to reduce it labor costs by at least $2.5 billion a year, and says it will violate banking agreements on $1.5 billion in bankruptcy financing unless it can achieve those cost reductions by May.

The wage concessions needed by the airline could escalate with the outbreak of war in Iraq, as international travelers become increasingly reluctant, United officials say.

Meanwhile, the Steamboat committee has all but abandoned tentative plans to underwrite a daily flight from Houston on a Continental Airlines regional jet this summer. The $250,000 price tag for revenue guarantees needed to attract the airline is just too steep, Steamboat Chamber Resort Association Executive Vice-President Sandy Evans-Hall said.

Janet Fisher of the Ski Corp. said Delta airlines has expressed some eagerness to have its commuter partner, Sky West, fly a Brasilia turboprop into Steamboat from Salt Lake City once or twice a day this summer.

The Brasilia proved to be a difficult aircraft for Great Lakes Aviation to operate here during the summer of 2001 because of weight restrictions imposed upon it at YVRA's high-elevation runway.

Fisher said Sky West would try to mitigate weight restrictions with a flight that would arrive in the early evening, spend the night on the tarmac and take off again in the cool of the morning, Fisher said. The flight would be able to connect with significant banks of Delta flights at Delta's secondary hub in Salt Lake.

A second flight from Salt Lake would probably have to execute a turnaround at YVRA at about 11 a.m., Fisher said, raising some issues with weight restrictions.

Fisher said her company is interested in building its relationship with Delta because it is talking with the airline about operating direct ski season flights into the valley.

She has not been able to refine the cost of bringing a Sky West turboprop here for service in spring, summer and fall.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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