HomeNews CMBR still exploring air service into Montrose
CMBR still exploring air service into Montrose
Written by Alissa Johnson
Wednesday, 13 March 2013
In an ideal world, Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) and the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) prefer to finalize the winter flight schedule by mid-April. That lets the ski resort announce flights in time for an important industry trade show, the Mountain Travel Symposium, and start selling seats before large groups make their travel plans.
But this year, a key question remains: Will CBMR shift its focus to the Montrose Regional Airport? Waiting for the answer could bring the resort right up against that deadline, and has the RTA’s hands tied as far as providing direct service between Denver and Gunnison. Jeff Moffett, director of Crested Butte Vacations, explained that CBMR still hopes to hit that deadline but the airlines are conducting their own analysis of a shift to Montrose. “By considering Montrose, there’s quite a bit more moving parts to analyze and more players involved… The airlines are going to want to do more analysis before they undertake a transition like that,” he said. Currently, American Airlines provides direct service from Dallas to the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, and United Airlines provides direct service from Houston. If a new partnership between CBMR and Telluride Ski Resort moves forward, direct flights from those cities would shift to Montrose. It would be part of what the ski resorts call a shift to regionalization, combining resources with other ski resorts to stay competitive in an ever-changing airline industry. “From the perspective of the airlines, they see the merits and they understand regionalization,” Moffett said. “What I’ve gotten at this point is that they see the pros, but have some questions they’d like to study further…. They’re doing that and we’re planning to talk to them in the next couple of weeks.” At this point, there’s no telling what the airlines will decide. Moffett said it’s possible the airlines will come up with an alternative suggestion, or be willing to give it a try but with a minimum revenue guarantee (MRG). Then it’s a question of whether the price tag attached to it could be cost-prohibitive. The delay is causing some impatience among RTA board members. According to airline consultant Kent Myers, future partnerships between the RTA and United Airlines—which provides direct service between Denver and Gunnison—could look very different if United becomes the only airline serving that airport. Details would need to be worked out, but early indications suggest there would be more service. “I appreciate all the hard work [by CBMR] but I just want to encourage [them] that if we’re going to go do this, we need to go do this because the ticker is ticking and the RTA is committed to the Gunnison airport,” Myers said at an RTA board meeting on Friday, March 8. Commissioner Paula Swenson echoed that sentiment, saying, “I completely agree with Kent. We need to make the final decision that this is the path we’re going to continue to go down so we can move on and secure service for next year.” Swenson emphasized that “the continuation of commercial air service into the Gunnison airport is a number one priority for the county commissioners.” That point resonated with much of the audience, including Fred Stinson, a Gunnison resident who works at the airport and hung a sign up in the airport lobby directing people to call the commissioners if they want to save direct service from American Airlines. “I put that banner up because I’m concerned about the valley,” Stinson said, adding that he was very concerned about working solely with United. “They missed five flights the other day, and American came and went.” That comment led to what is now a familiar discussion at the RTA about the complexity of air service: airlines’ shrinking inventories, the role the size of planes play in load factors, the ever-increasing cost of MRGs, and the simple fact that many of the factors involved are out of local hands. “I don’t want anyone to think we think United is a silver bullet, but we as a board have to look at what we want future air service to be like and follow a path,” said County Commissioner Jonathan Houck. “We’ve tried to invest money into programs and they have not grown to the point where they are self-sufficient. At some point we have to evaluate what is the best bang for our buck because we don’t have enough money, even with our partners, to do what we want to do.” John Norton, who has in the past spoken in favor of regionalized air service, then stood up at the front of the room and made an impassioned plea to the resort. “Don’t go. Stay for at least the next year,” he said, “It doesn’t sound to me like you’re prepared to go.” Norton cautioned CBMR, suggesting that shifting air service to Montrose could require additional expenditures of $4 million to $5 million, including a massive and difficult education campaign to let consumers know how to reach Crested Butte. In his mind, a failure in Montrose had the potential to ruin Gunnison service, too. “I wish you’d stand up and say we’re not going to go to Montrose,” Norton said, drawing a chuckle from CBMR general manager Ethan Mueller. Mueller did stand up then and speak, but he did not promise to back out of Montrose. “I don’t disagree with a lot of what John just said,” Mueller said. “It is a big risk, there are a lot of financial factors and logistical factors, but the reason we’re considering options like that is that our backs are against the wall. If we don’t, as a valley, figure out a new path we’re not going to see any change.” Mueller said that in the last two years the number of incoming seats has declined by 8 percent, and that kind of trend is not sustainable—for the resort or the valley. Montrose is on the table because it could be a way to grow volume. But that seemed hasty to Commissioner Phil Chamberland. “I look at it differently. I think we’re being impatient with our current program,” Chamberland said, pointing out that a year ago, the resort asked for consistency—to stay the course with direct service from Dallas and Houston. “Within a year we’re sitting here saying consistency is not going to work and we want change… We’re being impatient. If you want to grow the program, we need to fill those seats up.” For now, however, CBMR is going to continue exploring the Montrose option. That apparently leaves the RTA with little to do for now, other than moving forward with the beginnings of a public education campaign to help the valley understand the value of the air program.