United cuts Steamboat flights, jets

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Ski-area executives are hustling to restore ski season service reductions from Denver on United Airlines.

Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said this week that the resort community faces a potential loss of 7,000 inbound seats as United reduces its service to Yampa Valley Regional Airport. The airline plans to send regional jets that have flown into YVRA elsewhere and reduce the number of daily flights on turboprops.

Wirth and Director of Airline Programs Janet Fischer thought they had finalized next winter's airline program before the end of the 2004-2005 ski season. However, during talks with United officials in late May, they learned the airline had decided to cut the seven daily flights to Steamboat (including a daily 737) to three or four, retaining the 737.

The news came as a surprise to Steamboat officials.

"It felt like we were being punished," Wirth said. However, the airline's decision is dispassionate and based strictly on financial data, Wirth added.

"You can't underestimate the volatility of the airline market right now. (United) did well on load factors last winter. They would tell you the yields (profits) are low," Wirth said. "They are looking at every single opportunity to reduce costs."

United carried nearly 40 percent of the 98,641 airline passengers who arrived at YVRA last ski season.

After receiving the news, Fisher went to work and built the case for adding back some of the previously eliminated turboprop flights. United officials agreed to do so, Wirth said.

But the regional United Express jets that have flown into YVRA for several winters will give way entirely to turboprops this winter.

United Express service into YVRA has been a blend of aircraft operated by Air Wisconsin and Mesa Airlines. The latter flies the Dash 8 turboprops and the former flies the BAE-146 small jets. United recently informed Air Wisconsin it would be re-bidding all of its contracts with the regional carrier, a factor that could explain the jets flying off to other markets.

Yampa Valley Airport Commissioner Ulrich Salzgeber said the difference in service levels between Air Wisconsin and Mesa is significant. Air Wisconsin is far less likely to cancel flights, leaving travelers inconvenienced, he said. Mesa is less reliable and less communicative, he said.

Salzgeber said it could be a healthy thing if the reduction in Denver flights on United Express causes the community to explore other options for service.

"I would hope we can fill in with better quality and not just quantity," Salzgeber said. "There are just so many negatives we see with United (that) we just don't see with other airlines."

United's position of dominance at Denver International Airport means Steamboat would struggle to replace all the connecting flights that feed commuter flights to YVRA

Wirth said he pitched United the idea of replacing all the turboprops with three daily 737s but the airline's request for about $1 million in revenue guarantees to make the change was "ludicrous" for the short hop from Denver. Ski Corp. also rejected a United proposal that Steamboat supply revenue guarantees to add back more turboprop flights on Dash 8 aircraft.

Continuation of United's single daily 737 from Denver has been contracted for this winter. That flight serves an important dual role by picking up passengers and ski equipment that didn't make it onto smaller aircraft earlier in the day.

Wirth vowed to add more seats on other airlines in time for ski season.

"The vast majority of those (lost) seats will be replaced," Wirth said. "The good news is most of the seats we lost were the seats that weren't performing well."

Wirth said Fischer is exploring options with Delta and Northwest airlines to offset the loss of service from Denver. Possible outcomes include adding more service from Atlanta on Delta, bolstering Northwest's service out of Minneapolis, or possibly adding a new flight from Detroit.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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