Hayden Passengers on United Express flight 6759 descended through a steady snowfall onto the runway at Yampa Valley Regional Airport late Sunday afternoon.
Most were probably unaware that the 66-passenger CRJ-700 jet operated by SkyWest Airlines represents a new chapter in air service between Denver and the Yampa Valley.
The new flight this month marks the return of small jets to the Denver route. YVRA has depended almost exclusively on United Express for air service to Denver for many years. The smaller planes combine to carry more than 30 percent of ski season air traffic into the valley and connect the valley to many cities served by United from Denver.
Ulrich Salzgeber, who serves on the Yampa Valley Airport Commission, said the arrival of the CRJ-700 was a welcome sight.
"We've had full jet service before," Salzgeber said. "I hope this is a permanent change. But in the back of my mind, I know things could change again at United Express."
YVRA is seeing a mix of small jets and turboprops on the Denver route. Coincidentally, SkyWest also is flying the Salt Lake City route to YVRA for Delta Airlines, with CRJ-700s.
During the winter of 2002-03, United Express flew small jets exclusively to YVRA during ski season, returning to turboprop service in spring, summer and fall. For two succeeding winters, United Express flew a mix of jets and turboprops. Since the end of the 2004-05 ski season, flights to and from Denver on United Express have been on the Mesa turboprops. Throughout that timeframe, United mainline has also flown a daily Boeing 737 to Steamboat.
Resort officials went to United Express officials early this year to plead for the return of small jets. A delegation from Steamboat flew to Chicago to meet with United. They were told by United Express executive Sean Donohue that the turboprops make strong economic sense for the airline on this route. If the Yampa Valley wanted to see small United Express jets commuting back and forth to Denver, it was going to have to contract for them.
There wasn't much encouraging news when the Steamboat delegation returned, but by August, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., with the blessing of the board of directors of the local marketing district, had contracted for two daily flights on the comfortable jets. A third flight will be added during some holiday periods.
Ski Corp. Marketing Vice President Andy Wirth said the aircraft represented one part of the community's concern with United Express service last winter.
Wirth said in April that resort leaders and airline officials resolved to make progress on service issues associated with the Denver route before going to work on restoring small jet service to the Denver route. But the opportunity in late August to add jet flights represented a chance to improve passenger comfort as well as increase lift into the valley.
"The problems had many facets," Wirth said. "We're mitigating those issues by putting the CRJ-700 into parts of the daily schedule that have the greatest demand."
Salzgeber said the CRJ-700 offers several advantages.
"No. 1, it's more comfortable," he said. "They have a first-class cabin (as well as an economy-plus section with more leg room). The cabin height is better and there is more room for luggage, which can be a problem here (because of vacationers' hefty ski bags). People are just more comfortable when they go out to the airport, and there's a jet there waiting for them."
Salzgeber said the focus of the commission would continue to be enhancing year-round, affordable and sustainable airline service for the valley.