Atlanta air flights expanded

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Encouraged by the performance of the ski season air program that just ended, executives at the Steamboat Ski Area already have begun plans to modestly expand it next winter.

Steamboat has reached tentative agreement with Delta Airlines to add a direct flight from Atlanta on Sundays in addition to the Saturday flight that was initiated this ski season. With just 16 roundtrips this winter, the Atlanta flight produced 2,350 arriving passengers this ski season. That means Delta's arriving Boeing 757s carried an average of 150 passengers. The aircraft can seat 183 people.

"For seasonal service, that's fantastic," Steamboat airline manager Janet Fischer said. "It did better than we anticipated."

The final economic performance of the "Fly Steamboat" program isn't known yet. However, Andy Wirth, vice president of sales and marketing for Steamboat and The Canyons, Utah, said when the final accounting is done, he expects inbound passengers will have increased at almost the rate seats were increased. At the same time, he predicted, costs of the program will drop by 25 percent.

Steamboat boosted inbound seats by 8 percent to a scheduled 136,700. The number of passengers flown this year grew by 7 percent, Wirth said.

"That is a very key ratio," he said.

The airline program, which depends on local businesses to provide the airlines with minimum revenue guarantees, was budgeted to cost $1.85 million, but Wirth expects the number to come in at $1.7 million. That is 25 percent less than the final cost for 2002-03, he said.

Delta also operated Steamboat's inaugural daily service from Salt Lake City. The flight brought 8,600 passengers to Yampa Valley Regional Airport near Hayden. Wirth credited the flight with helping to increase Steamboat's penetration of the California market as a percentage of overall business. California skiers and snowboarders accounted for 5.5 percent of Steamboat's visitors this winter, compared to 3.5 percent last season.

Wirth said there is a chance the Salt Lake flight will be operated on a larger Boeing 737 next winter, adding an additional 20 seats per flight.

Negotiations on the daily flight from Chicago on American Airlines are continuing. Wirth said he understood the importance of that flight to Steamboat's lodging industry. Bob Milne of Steamboat Resorts said recently the Chicago hub plays a crucial role in offering convenient connections for visitors to Steamboat from major northeastern cities.

Wirth vowed not to allow the number of seats out of Chicago to slip.

"I take that very seriously," Wirth said. "We intend on not moving backward on Chicago. We won't change the number of seats available."

At the same time, Wirth said, American's service out of Chicago is more than twice as expensive as any other city of origin in terms of cost per passenger. He said he would continue to negotiate to improve that situation.

Finally, Wirth said, the airline program will be challenged next December, when Christmas falls on a Saturday.

Saturday is usually the biggest arrival day at YVRA, and the holiday week is crucial to early ski-season business. However, Wirth said, people are loathe to travel on Christmas Day.

Continental Airlines has agreed to take some unusual measures to make holiday traveling easier for its passengers between Newark, N.J., and YVRA, Wirth said.

The Newark flight typically operates once a week on Saturday, but Continental has agreed to operate additional roundtrip 757 flights on Dec. 26, 27 and 28, Wirth said.

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