Taking flight to Eagle 

The essential message that comes out of most studies done on other ski area airports is that they can bring in a lot of money and often generate a new wave of growth.

The Eagle County Airport, about 50 km outside of Vail and 32 km from Beaver Creek, is a textbook example of what an airport can do for ski areas – particularly ski areas owned by a politically-connected company with deep pockets.

Eagle County Airport services about six Colorado ski areas, but Vail is the biggest. Melanie Roberts, from Vail Public Relations, said the airport has been a huge part of the region’s success.

"Over the course of 15 years, the (flight) program has grown to include 13 direct flight markets on service from six different airlines," said Roberts.

"The initiative stemmed mainly from Vail Resorts; needing to provide a high level of guest service and convenient access to our resorts is a significant portion of that service."

But it wasn’t simply a matter of building the airport and the airlines – and skiers – flocking to Eagle. To entice air carriers to fly there the resort has had to buy a certain number of seats, or, in the parlance of the industry, offer "air service guarantees." However, as business has grown over the years the reliance on guarantees has declined.

"The business has been built to such a level where we are relying less and less on air-service guarantees," Roberts said.

Vail Resorts funds the winter air service guarantees but in the past couple of years local businesses and tour operators have been asked to pony up the guarantee for summer air service. It’s a program that Roberts said is still developing.

"We have partnered with the community on a summer air service program that has seen success over the past two summers, and continues to grow."

Roberts added that the airport also revealed a lot of opportunities for people in the area who weren’t in the snow business.

"Many of the communities throughout the Vail Valley were really considered rural, but have seen growth due to the better access."

Kent Myers, who was involved with a lot of the planning for Eagle County Airport in the mid-1980s, has seen the facility grow.

"Before 1989-90 there was no traffic coming through the Eagle County Airport," Myers said, "and now 50 per cent of the winter destination visitors that come to Vail/Beaver Creek go through the Eagle County Regional Airport.

"And there is now daily summer service from Dallas/Fort Worth."

Myers said the federal government, and Vail’s political connections, played a big role in helping establish the Eagle County Airport.

"There were two large players who developed a strategy, Eagle County who owned the airport and Vail Associates (VA) who owned Vail/Beaver Creek. VA wanted to develop greater ease of access and Eagle County wanted to increase air service," Myers recalled.

"VA helped Eagle County, through our political ties, to get the funding from the Federal Aviation Administration towards matching dollars. Eagle County built the infrastructure with help from the FAA and VA became the machine to negotiate with the airlines to convince them to fly.

Actually it wasn’t the sort of "matching dollars" that Canadians are used to, where each level of government puts up an equal share. In the case of Eagle County Airport the FAA provided 90 per cent of the money and Eagle County 10 per cent.

But the investment has paid off for Vail. Myers says: "1997-98 was the peak year, then the airlines had over 300,000 seats available in the winter season with non-stop service to major hub cities. In 2003-04 there were 230,000 available seats in the winter season.

"The key to the success is the direct service to hub cities so passengers can connect to other communities, and the frequency of the flights," adds Myers.

He is sold on the benefits of airports to ski areas.

"The airport is an economic driver because for every job that is created on the airport there are another 1.25 jobs created off the airport," said Myers.

"Steamboat Springs, Jackson Hole and Crested Butte had similar type of growth with the same concept… develop an air service to a hub and use the airlines’ operational infrastructure (ticketing, luggage, reservations etc.) to service the passengers."

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