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Some holiday travelers facing high plane ticket prices Print
Written by Alissa Johnson   
Wednesday, 05 December 2012
Big changes to Local’s Fare

Maintaining and improving the frequency of flights into the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport gets a lot of play in the Gunnison Valley, with the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) and Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) promising United and American Airlines more than $1 million in minimum revenue guarantees.
But another side of the equation—the affordability of flights for both locals and visitors—can be equally complex. This winter, the airline schedule and school calendar conflict in some cases, causing high airfares for select travelers, and both airlines are changing up or introducing locals’ fares.

Some high airfares
Every year, Graham Elliott and his family come to Crested Butte for Christmas. It’s one of several annual trips to the valley—Graham estimates that he purchases between 14 and 16 round trip tickets between Houston, TX and Gunnison every year—and the family likes to stay as long as they can. At Christmas time, that means flying in for two full weeks over the kids’ school break.
This year, that meant flying into Crested Butte on December 21 and returning to Houston on January 6. Tickets came in at more than $900 per person. That’s about three times more than last year, when Elliott spent $1,267.60 for all four tickets.
Had Elliott been able to fly on the same dates as last year (December 16 through December 29) he would have been able to fly his family for only $500 more than last winter. Similarly, if they could have returned to Houston after January 6, tickets would have been more reasonable.
“The prices start to ease for a return around January 9, but I’d need to keep my kids out of school for three days and I can’t do that. In my window there are no $400 - $600 fares,” Elliott said.
Elliott made his purchase in November in case prices went up even further, and a Crested Butte News search on United.com and search engines like Orbitz.com showed a similar story—if visitors had flexible travel dates, many fares were available in the $400 to $500 range. But if they were limited by the school calendar, they had to choose from tickets in the $800 to $900 range.
Opting to fly into other ski areas like Aspen didn’t appear to give travelers an advantage as a more recent search showed similar price ranges for other ski resorts.

What pushes airfare up
Jeff Moffett, director of Crested Butte Vacations, explained that travelers like Elliott are feeling the pinch between the airlines’ schedules and the school calendar.
“On the airline schedule side, the airlines have a huge system and they say let’s ramp up [availability] for the December peak on December 19 and ramp down on January 2 and the decision is made pretty far out, even before school schedules are finalized,” Moffett said.
In Gunnison, that means that the Denver service drops from two flights a day to one on January 3, and the Houston flight stops running in January. That limits the number of departing flights, and according to Moffett, pushes prices up for travelers going home in January. Where possible, the resort has made adjustments—an extra Dallas flight was added in January.
“We originally contracted with American to not fly on January 8, and then we saw this pattern shaping up so we changed our schedule and added that flight on January 8.  The American flight will be in operation on the 8th,” Moffett said.
But other factors push airfare up, too. A reduction in the number of seats—not just the number of flights—can also play a role as airlines overhaul their inventory.
Last holiday season, for example, United Airlines flew two 66-seat planes into the local airport. This year, the airline is flying one 66-seat plane and one 50-seat plane into the valley. That’s a 12 percent reduction at a peak travel time.
“It’s a layer cake. If you take what I said about airline schedules and school schedules, and layer on that reduction… that gets picked up by the forecast models and pushes fares up,” Moffett explained.
Kent Myers, consultant to the RTA, agrees that reductions in inventory will continue to influence airfares as airlines revamp their planes. “Over time that make an impact,” he said.

Airfare trends

 Myers said that he hasn’t noticed a significant increase in airfares this year over last, but they are all over the place—especially in Colorado.
“It’s a little challenging this year, especially in Colorado, because people in my opinion are a little skittish about the snow. That’s another factor. The airlines are seeing softness in December across the board,” Myers said.
He believes that travelers are waiting to see what the weather does in December, and the airlines are doing the same. It makes them cautious about offering discounted rates.
“The airlines are kind of picking and choosing where they know they’re going to have high demand days and holding on to those in the hopes, I think, that the snow comes out in good shape,” Myers continued.
The exception to that appears to be American Airlines, which both Myers and CBMR have credited with offering fare sales and discounted rates. “American is in a different arena. They’re in bankruptcy so the rules change for them,” Myers said.
But neither Myers nor Moffett have observed that holiday rates are significantly higher than last year. “We’re really not seeing newsworthy changes in [fares into the Gunnison Airport]. Overall, fare levels compare to last year,” Moffett said.
So while second homeowners with restricted travel dates may be feeling the pinch, the typical resort traveler who stays for anywhere from four to seven days can still find competitive rates.

Locals’ fares

Another traveler seeing some change this season is the local traveler. United Airlines is in the process of changing its locals’ fare, and American Airlines has added a locals’ fare to its roster for the first time.
According to Moffett, United is transitioning the local’s fare from Crested Butte Vacations to its website. The airline noticed that travelers in ski resort communities were using the fare to get to Denver and then changing to airlines like Frontier. Now, the fare will be offered to travelers who stay with United for their connecting flights.
It’s part of the airline’s overarching strategy to increase revenues, according to Moffett. The airline continues to struggle since its merger with Continental. According to an article in the Denver Post, the airline posted losses that totaled $103 million in the first three quarters of 2012.
“They don’t have a crystal ball that tells them this is ultimately in their best interest, but they have done a lot of homework and they’re convinced this is a prudent business decision on their part,” Moffett said. “They understand they are competing with the drive to Denver market, and we’ve tried to make that point many times and as clear as possible. So they’re trying to embrace that Gunnison local and get them to start their trip on United Airlines and do entire trips with United Airlines.”
American Airlines is also offering a locals’ fare to its schedule. Travelers can fly to Dallas and connect to American hubs like Chicago, Los Angeles and LaGuardia for discounted rates. Fares will vary, but as an example, a trip to LaGuardia through Dallas was available for just over $400. Travelers should call Crested Butte Vacations at 349-2287 for information on specific fares.
 
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