Looking for better planes

Resort officials fly to Chicago for airline meeting

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— A group of Yampa Valley resort and airport officials will travel to Chicago on March 22 in a bid to upgrade commuter airline service between Routt County and Denver.

The trip is a follow-up to a February letter to United Express Vice President Sean Donohue, which expressed complaints from elected officials from a half dozen local governments about the current service. Service is being provided by Tempe, Ariz.-based Mesa Airlines flying as United Express. The letter also was signed by business leaders.

The letter set off an angry exchange among Steamboat Ski and Resort officials, Yampa Valley Regional Airport managers and Mesa's top executive.

The letter criticized Mesa for its poor on-time performance and the number of canceled flights on the YVRA-Denver route.

Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa Air Group, defended his airline, labeled the criticisms false and demanded a public apology.

A subsequent report by the U.S. Department of Trans-portation ranked Mesa last among reporting U.S. airlines for on-time performance in January. Ornstein responded by pointing out that his airline flies in and out of unusually congested airports where its performance is affected. In airports with more favorable conditions, its performance is exemplary, he said.

Andy Wirth, marketing vice president for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., confirmed this week that his company had received a written request for the apology. However, Ski Corp. officials directed their legal counsel to respond in writing, saying no apology would be forthcoming.

Wirth said the group going to Chicago next week to talk to Donohue is no longer focused on the Mesa dispute but wants to effect a positive change. He said the group wants to listen to what Donahue has to say about how market trends will affect his company's operations in the mid-term. But the group also wants to make a determined plea for better aircraft and more service. And Wirth said he and Airline Program Director Janet Fischer would make the case using the kind of data that is persuasive to airline executives.

"This meeting represents the highest level of attention our air service has received in a decade," Wirth said. "This is becoming a more economically viable destination on a year-round basis, and we'll be asking for more and better aircraft."

The number of large resort housing projects poised to go forward in Steamboat, plus the creation of a funding mechanism for redevelopment of the ski area base, lend credence to the growth in the market for air travel, Wirth said.

The original letter to Ornstein sought a change in United Express carriers from Mesa to SkyWest, which also operates out of the Denver hub. But Wirth said the appeal to Donohue also would address United's decision to cut back on the number of flights into YVRA this winter.

Steamboat attempted to offset the reduction by boosting the daily nonstop from Chicago on American Airlines from a 737 to a larger 757 aircraft. The addition of 5,768 new seats from Chicago has translated into 5,000 more arriving passengers on the flight, Wirth said.

"Our results on the Chicago flight are nothing short of outstanding," Wirth said. "We plan to candidly discuss that point when we meet with Mr. Donohue."

Accompanying Wirth on the trip will be Fischer, Yampa Valley Airport Commission member Ulrich Salzgeber, YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel, and Ski Corp. President Chris Diamond. Diamond also is a member of the Airport Com-mission.

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

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