An American Airlines jet from Chicago lands at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in December 2009. The 25th season of the Fly Steamboat winter air service program begins today.

Photo by Matt Stensland

An American Airlines jet from Chicago lands at Yampa Valley Regional Airport in December 2009. The 25th season of the Fly Steamboat winter air service program begins today.

Steamboat winter air service program begins today, ramps up Saturday

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— The significance of today isn’t lost on Chad Gagliano. It’s why he spent part of his Wednesday morning visiting local hotels and reminding concierges about Slopeside Grill’s operating hours, specials and new menu.

“This weekend is when things really start to change,” said Gagliano, Slopeside’s general manager.

As the country remains mired in a struggling economy, it’s safe to say most of Steamboat Springs hopes that’s the case.

The 25th season of the Fly Steamboat winter air service program touches down today at Yampa Valley Regional Airport when 160-seat American Airlines flight 2363 makes its landing from Chicago, scheduled for 11:25 a.m. About 90 minutes later, a 188-seat Amer­ican Airlines flight from Dallas is slated to land in Hayden.

Several other daily ski season flights make their first runs to YVRA today, including Frontier Airlines’ 99-seat flight from Denver. United Airlines doubles its daily commuter flights from Denver today, going from two to four for the duration of the 2010-11 ski season.

Things will really get busy at YVRA on Saturday, when daily service is scheduled to begin from Atlanta and Minneapolis. Saturday also marks the beginning of weekend flights from Houston and Newark and a second Dallas flight. The Houston service will switch to daily the first week of January, which is also when a midweek Chicago flight adds to the ski season capacity from that city.

YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel said his crew is ready for the ski season push.

“We’re in great shape,” Ruppel said Wednesday while steady snow fell outside of his office window. “The facility is basically the same as what we had last year, even with the construction. From the passenger’s point of view, there shouldn’t be much of an inconvenience.”

This winter’s air service program includes daily incoming plane capacities of about 1,200 seats. The number jumps by a couple of hundred seats on weekends.

Mike Lane, spokesman for the Steamboat Ski Area, said incoming flights are close to capacity this weekend. He declined to provide specific load capacities for the flights but said they would be close to 100 percent full.

“People will notice a lot of visitors in town,” Lane said. “Word of the snow spread far and wide.”

According to the weekly lodging barometer published by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, about 7,500 visitors are expected to spend Saturday night in town. That’s up from 6,200 visitors who spent last Saturday in Steamboat.

Next Wednesday is expected to see about 7,900 guests staying overnight in Steamboat accommodations, and that number jumps to 8,300 visitors on Christmas night. The number of actual overnight visitors tends to be higher than forecast.

“Snow timed with airfare specials really helped drive bookings,” said Janet Fischer, the airline program manager for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.

Many arriving guests will be greeted by Billy Kidd today and Saturday at the airport, where he’ll sign autographs and chat with visitors as they wait for their luggage, Lane said. It’s all part of a strategy to create a memorable guest experience.

For Slopeside’s Gagliano, that includes introducing a new winter menu that has all of the restaurant’s usual fare plus a variety of new items created by executive chef Ariel Robey. Gagliano mentioned Colorado braised lamb shank, fish tacos and a 14-ounce black angus strip as notable examples.

“We’re very ready,” he said.

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