Spring and summer flight options shrink for Steamboat travelers

— Brian Smith was in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday when he got the news that the number of flights for most of April and May between Yampa Valley Regional Airport and Denver has been cut to just one daily round trip.

“Oh boy, that hurts,” Smith said.

As a clinical applications specialist for Siemens Healthcare, he travels as much as 130,000 miles each year out of YVRA to monitor the software performance on multimillion-dollar molecular imaging devices in hospitals from the Midwest to Europe.

“I support worldwide activities with our company. This last year, I only flew 75,000 miles,” Smith said. "I go to the factory in Knoxville (Tenn.) every four to six weeks, and I have to be in London at the end of April. I can’t plan my trips in advance. I’m in Ann Arbor today, but my boss could call this afternoon and say, ‘I need you in Boston tomorrow.’”

The news about spring and summer flight reductions, confirmed to business leaders here by United Express officials this month, amounts to the elimination of one daily round trip through different periods of spring and summer.

In addition to cutting April and May flights to one round trip to and from Denver, there will be two daily round trips in June instead of the three that operated last summer and three flights in July instead of the four that served YVRA in July 2012.

Smith is one among a growing group of location-neutral workers who call Steamboat Springs and Routt County home but must travel frequently for business. Their numbers are difficult to track, but the trend is thought to be growing.

Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern said he has heard the number of location-neutral workers estimated from 750 to 1,750.

“I don’t know if we have a real good handle on it, but it’s a significant number of people,” Kern said.

Kern said Steamboat Springs isn’t the only mountain resort confronted with flight reductions.

“Most of the rural mountain communities face the same challenges in non-winter months,” Kern said. “The conversation we’ve had with United indicates the decision they made here, they made pretty much everywhere except Aspen.”

YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel said Tuesday that Aspen commands greater frequency of flights because a higher percentage of passengers who travel there pay for premium seating.

Kern said the Yampa Valley needs to demonstrate to United Express that it can generate enough travelers to warrant more flights.

“What we’ve got to do as a community is show we can have a higher demand for mud season and summer to increase load factors to where they’d be willing to add more flights,” Kern said.

Traveling with fewer flights

Researching flights at www.united.com shows that after operating three round trips between Denver and Hayden on April 8, United Express will cut back to one daily round trip on April 9.

SkyWest will operate the April flights with a 50-passenger CRJ200 jet. Republic Airlines returns in May for the duration of the summer with the 74-passenger Q400 turboprop.

The April/May flights will follow roughly the same schedule as the last United Express flight of the day during ski season, leaving Denver at 7:45 p.m. and arriving in Hayden at 8:33 p.m. to remain parked on the apron overnight before leaving for Denver at 7:45 a.m. Schedules are subject to change.

Kern said the timing of the first and last flights of the day is helpful for business travelers.

“They scheduled it in such a way that you can maximize your ability to get out and get back,” he said.

For other travelers, he said, the reduced schedule might make it more difficult, even impractical, to connect with the next leg of their trips.

Kern himself takes advantage of direct flights in the summer from Denver International Airport to his parents’ home in Traverse City, Mich. But the timing of flights from YVRA doesn’t match well with the flight to Michigan.

“I’m a perfect example,” he said. “My layover time is so significant, it would be more timely for me to drive to Denver and get the plane there.”

When people begin to reach that conclusion, they also shop other airlines on price for the flight from DIA to their ultimate destination, he added.

Smith said he is entering his busiest time of year with the release of new software by his company. He might take four or five airplane trips in the next six weeks.

“When flights start getting limited, I could catch one at Vail (Eagle County Airport) or drive down to Denver, which I don’t want to do. I’ve never driven to Denver to catch a flight for work since 2006.”

Smith plainly enjoys his career and cherishes his home in Steamboat, but his ability to have both is predicated on air service.

“As much as I love Steamboat, I couldn’t live here without that airport,” he said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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