Delta may add Cincinnati flight

Carrier contemplates weekly, nonguaranteed 757


— Delta Airlines is considering flying a Boeing 757 between Cincinnati and Yampa Valley Regional Airport next ski season.

The tentative Cincinnati flight is part of a ski-season airline package that would boost inbound seats by as much as 5.7 percent to 147,000, up from 139,000, according to Steamboat Ski Area marketing executive Andy Wirth. The Cincinnati flight, which would run Saturdays only, was proposed by Delta and would not involve minimum revenue guarantees from the resort community.

Wirth said a flight from Delta's hub in Ohio would tap into connecting flights from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. However, the airline would have to agree to schedule an afternoon arrival and be willing to leave the aircraft at YVRA overnight for a morning departure. The airport can't handle any more 757s arriving at midday on Saturdays,Wirth said.

"We know definitively our ability to expand the airline program is limited by the airport ability to service the seats and handle the passengers," Wirth said.

Last summer's expansion of the airport's security and check-in area made it possible for the flight program to pursue the 7 percent growth in arriving seats last winter, he added. Planned expansions to the apron, which will provide additional jet parking, and the holding room where passengers wait to board flights, remain critical pieces in the effort to improve the balance between the resort's bed base and available airline seats, he said.

Wirth entered airline negotiations for next ski season contemplating adding a second weekly flight from Atlanta, but on Sundays instead of Saturdays. The airplanes from Atlanta were almost 80 percent full last winter, he said.

The Delta flights from Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati are woven together. Wirth said there is a possibility the Atlanta flight, as well as the Cincinnati flight, would not carry revenue guarantees, while guarantees on the Salt Lake flight may be boosted.

Delta Airlines made national news this week because of its weakening financial condition. Company officials said their ability to stay out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy is predicated on their ability to renegotiate salaries with the pilot's union.

Delta began serving YVRA for the first time last ski season, with a direct flight on Saturdays from Atlanta and daily Boeing 737s from Salt Lake City. Through March, Delta accounted for 8,675 of the more than 93,000 passengers who arrived at the airport during the heart of ski season.

The daily Salt Lake flights on Delta helped to make the Saturday flights from Atlanta more successful, Wirth said. They provided travelers more flexibility by allowing them to book a return flight, for example, via Salt Lake, and then on to Atlanta. The same dynamic should work for Saturday flights from Cincinnati, he predicted.

Steamboat raised the possibility of switching the Salt Lake service from a Boeing 737 to a 50-passenger regional jet next winter, Wirth said. Delta opted to stay with the larger aircraft because it feels it is better prepared to accommodate the heavier luggage loads created by vacationing skiers.

Wirth said he thinks the ski season flight program has never been more important to the success of the resort.

"Airline seats are on a par with snow in terms of importance," Wirth said. "That is now an absolute."

The percentage of paid skier days (those attributed to skiers who are not using season or value passes) that arrives at YVRA ranges between the high 70s and low 80s, Wirth said. More than 30 percent of paid skier days arrive at Denver International Airport and arrange ground transportation to Steamboat.

The financial struggles of the airlines and their need to become more efficient has helped Wirth bargain more effectively on behalf of the resort, he said.

Steamboat increased inbound seats last winter by 7 percent to 149,000, which resulted in a 6 percent increase in the number of arriving passengers (up to 93,801 through the end of March). At the same time, restructured airline deals allowed the airline program to revise its target cost down from the previous winter's $23 million to $1.85 million. When the airline program ended in April, the actual cost of the revenue guarantees was about $1.7 million.

Airlines such as United, which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, are reducing staffing levels, renegotiating labor agreements and investing in labor-reducing technology such as ticketing kiosks. Those factors mean the costs built into sending a 737 to YVRA have been reduced, and there is new room to negotiate the minimum revenue guarantees the resort must supply the airlines.

American Airlines took $4 billion out of its operating costs in 2003, and, not coincidentally, Steamboat was able to persuade American to agree to an 8 percent to 10 percent reduction in the cost of flying a daily 737 between Chicago and YVRA next winter. Steamboat discussed the possibility of switching the Chicago service to United next winter, but the airline's proposal wasn't as attractive.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

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