Eyes to the skies: Winter to bring big changes for Yampa Valley airport
The fast-approaching winter season will bring some major changes to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, several expansion projects are nearing completion, and the airport is gearing up for an influx of passengers come opening day at Steamboat Resort. On Thursday, the airport released its winter flight schedule with fewer than 100 days before Opening Day at the ski area.
When it comes to changes to winter operations, the elephant in the room, as Airport Director Kevin Booth said, is the addition of Southwest Airlines to the airport’s roster. It marks the airline’s first winter seasonal service to a mountain airport.
Trips with Southwest will begin Dec. 19 and run through April 5, 2021, offering three daily flights between Denver and Steamboat Springs. According to an announcement last week, Southwest Airlines is expanding its original schedule with a new once daily flight between Dallas and Steamboat on Saturdays and Sundays from Dec. 19 through April 4.
Though it wasn’t all good news as Delta Airlines recently announced the cancellation of its winter service to the airport, which Booth attributed to cutbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are looking at all of their flights across the country,” Booth said of Delta. “They are reducing a lot of their flights at airports, and we just happened to be one of them.”
St. Louis-based Trans States Airlines also halted its operations at the end of March. Its CEO, Rick Leach, cited a shortage of pilots and thin profit margins as the primary reasons for the shutdown.
In total, the airport is offering flights to and from 14 cities this winter, the same number as last winter. New this year, Jet Blue is providing service to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. Flights will operate on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the busiest flight dates in the winter, from Dec. 29 through March 27.
“It’s not a large service, but it is a market that was underserved for us,” Booth said of the New York flight. “We are really pleased to see Jet Blue is going to try it. We hope it’s a successful one.”
The beginning of the pandemic decimated passenger numbers as airlines and travelers faced fears over the spread of the coronavirus. For the month of April, flights to the Hayden airport ran at just 10% of capacity, according to minutes from a Yampa Valley Airport Commission meeting in June.
Confidence in air travel has since improved, but numbers are still down. So far this summer, the airport has seen about a 40 to 50% reduction in traffic, according to Booth. This is due in large part to United Airlines cutting its service to and from Denver almost in half. Despite the decrease, passengers continue to fill seats, a positive sign for Booth.
“We saw a significant reduction in the number of flights, but a significant increase in number of people on those flights,” he said.
Come winter, officials expect total available seats to be up 12% compared to what the 2019-20 season would have offered without the pandemic-related disruptions, according to Janet Fischer, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.’s airline program director. The increase is due to the new Southwest Airlines flights and the inaugural service to New York.
“That does not take into account what each airline’s potential seat restrictions may be in place when the flights start,” Fischer added.
Airlines require passengers to wear face coverings on flights and have enhanced cleaning protocols to keep staff and passengers safe. Travelers should check with individual airlines prior to their flight to check for any additional rules or policies.
The airport is about two months away from completing a $4.5 million terminal expansion project, according to Booth. Construction crews recently finished excavating and pouring the foundation, and they expect to be done with everything by the end of October as scheduled.
The new space is meant to reduce congestion, increase capacity and improve the flow of travelers getting to their planes. The project also will add a seventh gate to the terminal for Southwest Airlines. Employees with the airline arrived last week to prepare for winter service.
The projects come at an opportune time with the addition of the airline, which brings the challenge of accommodating more passengers and their baggage. Southwest has gained a reputation for its policy of allowing up to two free checked bags, with a pair of skis, a snowboard, a set of poles or a pair of boots counting as one checked bag. The policy means Southwest flights will bring more bags per passenger than any other airline.
With planes accommodating 150 seats and more, the airport is in the process of enhancing its bag-checking process to accommodate the influx. The new terminal should reduce congestion, which a 2017 report identified as one of the main problems during peak periods in the winter and summer. It also will add six more indoor check-in booths, allowing passengers to get to their flights faster and, hopefully, alleviating some of the stress of air travel.
The airport also received about $18.5 million in CARES Act funding, allocated in two separate grants. The first grant, worth $15.5 million, is for operations and maintenance costs, Booth said. Another $3 million is for development projects.
To that end, Booth already has some projects in mind for next year. They include expanding the paid parking lot and paving an access road.
Impacts on Routt County
Airports bring a multitude of benefits to surrounding communities like Steamboat. A 2015 report that showed rural areas with daily, commercial airline service tended to see faster growth, less income volatility and a more educated workforce than more isolated communities.
Airport operations bring millions of dollars into the local economy. Each winter passenger spends an average of $1,345 during his or her trip to Routt County, according to Fischer. In total, visitors who fly to the area contribute more than $100 million each winter, she added.
That number likely will take a hit this year as businesses brace for fewer tourists and the consequential cuts to their revenues. Nevertheless, the airport is instrumental in encouraging people from outside Colorado to visit a more isolated community like Steamboat.
Harry Martin, co-owner of Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare, anticipates sales to be down about 35% this winter. He bases this estimate predominantly on the assumption the ski area will not be able to operate at full capacity due to health concerns.
“Unfortunately, everything is really uncertain right now,” Martin said.
On an optimistic note, the bike business has been booming this summer, with sales up about 18%, according to Martin. The boost in revenue should help carry his business through a tougher winter, he said.
The bike industry has been slammed with demand, so much so that he is running out of inventory. For the winter, supply should be stable, Martin said, based on conversations with companies like Rossignol and Solomon.
In an effort to make people more comfortable flying, the local airport ramped up its cleaning protocols and hired more janitorial staff for the winter season, Booth said. He also is in the process of receiving certification from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council.
The organization works with businesses, such as restaurants, hotels and other airports to provide education, training and crisis consulting on hazards like COVID-19. Getting certified with the advisory council is a way to show how seriously the airport treats public health.
“It’s like hiring someone to come in and analyze your processes,” Booth explained.
The airport also invested about $30,000 in disinfecting equipment to keep public spaces clean, he added.
Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, who sits on the county’s Airport Commission, is in near daily talks about the upcoming ski season with his fellow commissioners. Though the coming months weigh heavy on his mind, Monger said he threw away his crystal ball back in April.
“We just have to be fleet and nimble and do the things we need to do to be ready,” he said.
Though uncertainties remain over what winter tourism will look like amid COVID-19, at least the visitors who still make the trip will have a fast way to reach Steamboat’s coveted — and trademarked — Champagne Powder.
As Martin thought of the tumultuous months ahead, he concluded, “I don’t know where else I’d want to be other than in Steamboat.”
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