Return of small United jets on hold

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— Yampa Valley community leaders have had talks with United Express, but their requests for more frequent service to and from Denver on small jets won't be realized for the foreseeable future.

A delegation of Yampa Valley officials traveled to Chicago in March to discuss service issues on the route between Yampa Valley Regional Airport and Denver International Airport. They previously had expressed in writing their concerns with the on-time performance and number of flights canceled by the service operated by Mesa Airlines as a United Express carrier.

"We had discussions about the type of aircraft serving the valley for the summer 2006 schedule, for the winter of 2006-07 and beyond," said Andy Wirth, a vice president with Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. "While Steamboat is a priority to (United Express), for our region, the focal point will be on improving service."

Mesa's spring schedule includes four daily roundtrips to Denver on 37-passenger Dash 8-200 turboprops.

Sean Donohue, vice president of operational services for United Express and Ted, invited the group from the Yampa Valley to meet with him in Chicago. Also in attendance were Managing Director of United Express Operations Todd Arkenberg and other executives.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport Manager David Ruppel was accompanied on the trip by Ulrich Salzgeber of the Yampa Valley Airport Commission and Ski Corp. executives Chris Diamond, Janet Fischer and Wirth. Diamond also is a member of the airport commission.

Wirth said the Yampa Valley contingent made a business case for upgraded service on the YVRA Denver route, but Donohue said United Express officials think the Dash 8 is an appropriate aircraft for the flights.

Ruppel said the talks in Chicago made it clear that United Express officials and local airport managers aren't always thinking in the same terms when they discuss service issues. Airline executives tend to think "globally," but airport managers deal with the issues of individual customers, Ruppel said.

"There was a recognition that we don't necessarily speak the same language when it comes to customer concerns," Ruppel said. "It's definitely a positive that there's a recognition we have to have these discussions, and there's a willingness to figure it out."

Wirth said discussions about the need to improve service into YVRA were very positive. But talks about upgrading to small jets came down to money.

Upgrading the service to more frequent small jet flights would necessitate the community providing revenue guarantees as it does for other commercial flights into the valley. At present, the business community does not provide revenue guarantees to secure United Express flights, nor does it anticipate doing so until United Express demonstrates it can provide more reliable service.

"We really think there's a long ways to go," Wirth said. "It wouldn't be wise for us to financially support any gains in seats unless we had a higher level of confidence in service levels. They saw the turboprop fitting this market quite effectively. Long term though, I think we'll see changes (in the aircraft flying between Steamboat and Denver)."

The two parties agreed that in the short term, they will communicate more directly and more often about service issues. Communication will no longer be limited to Yampa Valley and Mesa Air Group officials, but now will be directly routed through Arkenberg's office at United World headquarters in Chicago. The increased emphasis on communication also will involve United's operations staff at DIA.

Wirth said his office would continue the process of replacing airline seats lost when United Express pulled small jets from the Denver route after the ski season of 2004-05.

"Demand outstripped our capacity on a great number of days this past season," Wirth said. "We'll try to add new seats on other airlines. We take that as an obligation."

Wirth said United, formerly the No. 1 flight provider to YVRA during ski season, now ranks second to American Airlines. United provided about 30 percent of airline seats this ski season, down from more than 35 percent during previous winters.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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