Yampa Valley Regional Airport saw its second busiest February in five years when 26,670 passengers disembarked from arriving commercial flights last month. Arriving passengers outnumbered February 2003 by more than 1,900.
Steamboat Ski Area marketing executive Andy Wirth said this week his forecast through the end of the ski season reflects that load factors on direct flights this winter will be off slightly, but the financial performance of the flights will be up modestly.
Airline figures supplied by Routt County show the number of passengers arriving at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in February is the highest since February 2000, when 26,948 travelers arrived at YVRA. The figures for 2000 were boosted by 1,350 passengers who flew in on charter flights. YVRA saw just 850 charter arrivals last month.
Bob Milne of Steamboat Resorts said the positive airline trend last month helped his company post 11 percent gains over last February. Steamboat Resorts manages 800 guest rooms here.
"We're up right now in March almost 5 percent, and last March was a good March," Milne said. "The past week, we were extremely busy, and beginning tomorrow, we're sold out."
Wirth said he told a gathering of lodging managers this week that a decision to boost the number of ski-season airline seats this winter has paid off.
"We increased the number of inbound seats by 8 percent, and we now project that passenger numbers will be up 7.2 percent," Wirth said.
That 7 percent increase works out to more than 92,000 arriving passengers this winter.
Planning for next winter's airline program is under way, Wirth said, and he acknowledged that property managers stressed to him the need to narrow the ratio of resort pillows to airline seats. Even though the business community has boosted the number of inbound ski season airline seats, it hasn't kept pace with growth in the resort's bed base, Wirth said.
Milne said his company was aware that available airline seats for this period were gone a long time ago, which leads him to believe that Steamboat could have chalked up even bigger numbers with more inbound flights.
Next year's airline program could see a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in seats, Wirth said. That would put inbound seats in the range of 145,000 to 148,000, up from an estimated 139,498 this ski season.
The change translates to an increase of 5,000 to 8,000 seats. However, Wirth did not anticipate that Steamboat would add flights from new cities to reach those numbers.
One possibility, Wirth said, is adding a Sunday flight from Atlanta to complement the Saturday flight initiated this winter. The 183-passenger 757s from Atlanta recorded 90-percent load factors in February, Wirth said. Of 689 available seats, 660 were sold.
"That is virtually sold out," Wirth said. "We're very pleased with how both Delta flights, in their first year, have performed."
A daily 737 from Salt Lake City saw load factors of 69 percent last month, he added.
Wirth said he would like to bring in more aircraft on Saturdays, but constraints at YVRA won't permit it.
Milne said that though Saturday remains the biggest single arrival day, it's not as critical as it once was.
"It used to be that Saturday was by far the busiest, but Sunday is a close second and Friday and Thursday" are closing the gap, Milne said.
If additional flights on Saturdays are not possible, "Sunday is a great option," Milne said.
Milne said his company is particularly dependent on daily flights from Chicago because of the convenient connections it offers to the northeastern United States.
Milne said he is aware that Routt County commissioners are working hard on a multiyear improvement program at Yampa Valley Regional Airport. However, he said the customer comment cards his guests return suggest strongly that the community needs to continue working toward a better guest experience at the airport.
"With the volume that goes through there, we need to continue to upgrade that facility at Hayden," Milne said.
Wirth anticipated before the start of ski season that the initiation of the Delta flight from Atlanta would take away from direct flights from Houston on Continental Airlines and from Dallas on American Airlines. That proved only partially true: Continental's February numbers were down to 4,295 inbound passengers from 4,918 last year. American, with direct flights from Chicago as well as Dallas, was up in February to 7,326 from 7,115 last year.
American's load factors in February were at 71 percent, said Routt County airline accounting manager Margot Gasch. Continental was at 74 percent for arriving flights and 77 percent for departing flights.
Northwest Airlines, operating smaller aircraft this winter, was down from 3,175 to 2,612 deplanements in February.
One year ago, Wirth was concerned about the future of United Airlines as the company struggled in bankruptcy. However, United, together with United Express partners Air Wisconsin and Mesa Airlines, represent the biggest single share of the business at YVRA with more than 26,000 passengers.
Wirth said a "kids fly free" promotion this winter has helped to make United one of the bright spots.
However, the United flights, all from Denver, haven't achieved the load factors that other airlines have. The daily 737 flight was up to 68 percent in February. Air Wisconsin planes were half full. Mesa Airlines' arriving turboprops were about 60 percent full, and departing flights were 73 percent full.
From the standpoint of airline program success, load factors don't tell the whole picture, Wirth said. He said he focuses closely on yield -- essentially the amount of money collected for airline tickets sold. At the beginning of the winter, Wirth had projected the airline program would cost the business community $1.85 million when the results of the various contracts with the airlines were totalled.
"Our current forecasts tell us we're well within that," Wirth said.
Wirth told lodging officials this week that he is researching ways to more accurately measure the numbers of arriving passengers attributable to traffic -- business flyers, residents returning from vacation and second-home owners arriving from outside the Yampa Valley. His informal estimate is that local traffic accounts for 8 percent to 12 percent of the total passengers, but he wants to refine those numbers.
Although air passenger traffic generated locally often doesn't contribute to tourism, it helps other industries within the local economy, Wirth said.
"The airport and air program, collectively, are the single most important part of Northwest Colorado's economic engine," Wirth said.
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