Our View: Funds free up to expand summer air service

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The number of passengers flying in and out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport is down this summer. And it comes as no surprise. It’s easy to translate quickly the reduced number of flights this season into fewer passengers. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

It was welcome news this week that the surplus of funds the Fly Steamboat program was able to carry out of the 2012-13 ski season might afford as much as $250,000 to support expanded commercial airline service in future summers.

Whether you travel for leisure or business, we think you’re likely to agree that for residents of Northwest Colorado, summer airline service rivals ski season flights in importance. The goal of broadening summer service, whether it is realized through adding a second airline to the Denver route or opening a new destination/hub to the west, is becoming increasingly vital to the local economy.

The need to bolster our summer service first surfaced in February when United Express executives from Chicago confirmed that the number of daily flights between YVRA in Hayden and Denver would be cut back by one throughout the spring, summer and fall. That meant that instead of two daily flights in late April and May as there were in 2012, there would be just one. And in June, there would be just two dailies instead of three followed by a reduction from four to three flights in July and August.

The latest monthly passenger report from YVRA officials reflects a significant drop in the number of passengers from August 2012 to August 2013. The number of deplanements — passengers arriving at the airport — last month was 3,526, down 900 passengers from August 2012. And the number of enplanements — passengers boarding a flight in Hayden to fly to Denver and beyond — was 3,649, down 1,131 from the same month a year ago.

We aren’t privy to the financial performance of the flights — how full the planes were and how much passengers paid, in aggregate, for tickets — so it would be misleading to assign all of the falloff to the reduction in flights. We know that throughout the past few years, the winding down of national building contractor TIC’s presence in Steamboat significantly has reduced the amount of business travel in and out of the valley.

And we aren’t prepared to say how much $250,000 might accomplish, though the amount could be enough to entice an airline to give Steamboat a try in 2014. Alternatively, some of the funds might be better spent on making the case for Steamboat as a destination.

However, we do recall that almost 10 years ago, a summer flight on a 50-passenger jet from Houston on the former Continental Airlines was well-received by the traveling public. Routt County reported that the Houston flights were close to 75 percent full in July 2004. The local business community had risked $200,000 in revenue guarantees to Continental in hopes the flights would boost summer tourism.

In September 2005, autumn service to Salt Lake City on a 70-passenger Delta Airlines jet began. That was accomplished with a one-time federal grant of $500,000. When the funding ran out after autumn 2007, the local community decided not to pick up the tab for 2008 and beyond.

The Houston and Salt Lake flights were ambitious experiments that showed promise but ultimately fell by the wayside largely because of the cost to local governments and business communities.

The newest revision to the YVRA master plan, currently underway, includes plans to research how much demand and support there is in Routt and Moffat counties for expanded summer air service in a new economy. We wholeheartedly support those efforts.

For our institutions of higher education, health care, nonprofits, the arts, energy, location-neutral workers and, of course, tourism, reliable and convenient year-round commercial airline service is essential.

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