Program struggling to take off |

Program struggling to take off

Fall flight numbers lower than officials had hoped

Christina M. Currie

Tightening budgets and spotty success of a flight program may jeopardize an effort to lure more tourists to Moffat and Routt counties, officials say.

With federal grants and contributions from the two counties, the Summer Air Coalition pays airlines a minimum revenue guarantee to provide daily service from June to December to Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

In summer 2004, the coalition promised to pay Continental Airlines as much as $200,000 for unfilled seats. Although exact figures weren’t available Wednesday, the chamber paid Continental just less than $200,000 for unfilled seats.

This year, the chamber also guaranteed Continental as much as $200,000 for unfilled seats on summer flights.

Empty seats

Although final figures aren’t available until January, more passengers filled seats on the flights this year, said Sandy Evans-Hall, director of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.

Evans-Hall said she expects 50 percent to 75 percent of the funds to be returned to entities that contributed to the program. The flights on average were 63 percent full.

“The second year of the flight program was very successful,” she said.

But the program’s first attempt to provide fall flights is struggling.

Continental, which was contracted to provide daily summer air service from Hayden to Houston, wanted a $400,000 minimum revenue guarantee to provide fall flights. So the coalition chose Delta Airlines, which offered a flight from its Salt Lake City hub to Hayden for $250,000, Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said.

Delta service began in September, but it has struggled to fill flights.

“I don’t know that we’ll be able to do this next year unless we increase the load factor this year,” Evans-Hall said.

In September, the average passenger load was around 33 percent. That may be turning around. Wednesday’s flights were 78 percent full.

Higher costs

Selling seats may not be the only issue. As more airlines declare bankruptcy and are hit by rising fuel costs, the subsidy is likely to increase regardless of the carrier.

“I don’t know that we’ll be able to buy a flight next year,” Evans-Hall said.

She’s trying to stretch a $500,000 grant into two years. Half has been spent, and she’s not sure $250,000 will be enough of a revenue guarantee to get a fall flight next year.

She’s not as concerned about the summer program.

“We’re already negotiating with Continental to continue the Houston flight because we think that was pretty successful.”

The Steamboat Springs Ski and Resort Corp. guarantees $2 million for winter flights.

Community support

The city of Craig offered $10,000 to subsidize this year’s summer and fall flight programs and has budgeted $10,000 for summer and fall flights in 2006. But whether the Craig City Council funds the program is in question.

Mayor Don Jones said he isn’t sure that having flights from Salt Lake City — even though it does connect to 83 other cities — benefits Moffat County as much as a Houston connection would have.

Councilor Bill Johnston said he’ll base the decision on the final numbers.

“I want to know the impact the passengers are having on Moffat County,” he said.

Kelly Nottingham, office manager for Elkhorn Outfitters, said having flights into Hayden benefits hunters.

“As far as I know, hunters are using it,” she said.

Hunters from the East Coast tend to fly, while those from the West often drive to Colorado, Nottingham said.

Those who fly tend to fly into Denver and then hop on the United Airlines Express to Hayden, she said. But in the last three or four weeks, more have been taking advantage of the Delta flight, she said.

Referendum factor

The Moffat County commissioners also contributed $10,000 in 2005, but have decided not to contribute in 2006 unless Referendum 1A passes. Referendum 1A, which is on the Nov. 1 ballot, asks voters to exempt the county from revenue limits imposed by a law from 1913.

The Craig/Moffat County Economic Development Partnership also will continue to support the program into 2006.

“I’d be very surprised if the EDP didn’t participate in funding just because of the value of the service to economic development,” said Tim Gibbs, director of the partnership. “The flights are a very valuable asset to the community. The help alleviate the feeling of isolation in a rural area.”

The partnership gave $7,500 to the program in 2005.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 210, or

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