Local leaders grapple with airport closures and declining air program
Written by Alissa Johnson   
Wednesday, 23 January 2013
Should elected officials or businesses take the lead?

Some familiar airline topics resurfaced with the Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) last week: the December cancellation of several Christmas-time flights, the ever rising cost of revenue guarantees to the airlines and how to pay for them, and the growing belief that what plagues the local air program is a demand problem—fewer and fewer people are choosing to fly to Gunnison and Crested Butte.


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The public packed the latest board meeting of the RTA on Friday, January 18 to suggest that it was time for the valley’s elected officials to step up and lead by coming up with some visionary solutions. At the same time, members of the board suggested that it was time for the local business community to step up and help move the program forward.
The result was a plan for more talk at a joint meeting between the RTA and its Citizen Advisory Committee, tabling the idea of a tax increase to fund the air program and calling for the exploration of a possible coalition of businesses to raise additional funds.
Airport closures
The cancellation of several flights last month brought much attention to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines that require the Gunnison-Crested Butte Airport to maintain minimum braking action, or the friction required for a plane to stop, in order to keep the runway open during winter.
“Up until three years ago, when we did braking action—which is a friction test to see how well brakes work on the runway—all we would do is post what the numbers were, and the pilot would make the decision to come in or not, based on their experience and their confidence in the aircraft,” airport manager John DeVore has explained. That left more room for pilot judgment and allowed the airport to stay open under more varied conditions.
The situation has raised a host of questions, including the implementation of de-icing strategies, inadequate communication between the airport and the rest of the valley, and whether or not there is an opportunity to push back on the FAA policy.
At Friday’s meeting, County Commissioner Paula Swenson assured the room that a plan is being worked out to deal with icy runway conditions and communication.
“As we get the plan developed, I will bring it to the board,” she said.
“I’d like to see the RTA board communicated with at least by email when we have airport closures because people don’t understand the relationship of the RTA to the airport,” said RTA board chairman Chris Morgan. “If we have information we can help solve the problem, even though we don’t have anything to do with the airport.”
“There can be pushback,” said attorney David Leinsdorf. “We don’t have to roll over for bureaucratic rules. I think we need to push back again because there is no one factor that determines when a runway is safe to land on.”
“What is the thinking on pushback on the FAA?” Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep wanted to know.
“We haven’t had that conversation yet,” Swenson said.

Securing air program funding
Things seemed no less muddied when the conversation shifted to funding air service. Options have included increasing the tax revenues that fund the RTA and developing a consortium of businesses dedicated to raising additional funds for air service. Eagle County uses the latter to fund its air program, and has been discussed locally as a way to increase funds in the Gunnison Valley.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR) and the RTA already promise more than $1 million in revenue guarantees to American Airlines and United Airlines to maintain winter service from Dallas and Houston. The lion’s share comes from CBMR, and past inquiries about securing overnight United flights to Denver came with price tags over the $2 million mark.
Huckstep wondered if it would make sense for the RTA’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee to explore whether or not a coalition of businesses could play a role in funding the local air program. Mt. Crested Butte Mayor William Buck thought that idea was a no-brainer, but it uncovered a bit of a rift and some finger pointing between elected officials and the private sector.
“The government is so limited in what we can do, and everyone looks at the government to solve problems. But that army needs to be manned by the private side… We should push as hard as we can here. It’s for the benefit of all of us, but the private side needs to get on the horse and drive this with us,” Buck said.
Director of Crested Butte Vacations Jeff Moffett cautioned the group against asking for money without a larger plan. “I think that whether we’re asking to increase taxes or asking business to contribute the way the Eagle air alliance is, we need to know what the money is going toward,” he said, arguing for some kind of economic analysis about the role of air service in the valley.
“I agree with Jeff,” said Leinsdorf. “To go to the public or businesses in the present environment is a big mistake. The public needs to know where the money will be spent. There needs to be leadership in developing the program. Raising money to keep doing what you’re doing will not be a success.”
“We’re not saying go raise money, but I think it’s a fair question to ask whether or not a program like this could work in Gunnison County or if people are willing to try to make it work,” Huckstep said.
John Norton, former CBMR executive, agreed that the private sector needed to participate. “I don’t think [as elected officials] you can change the trajectory yourselves, but going after airport funding is only a small part of the solution… We are missing this thing called primary demand.”
Norton suggested that elected leaders get the right business leaders in a room together—the resort, the college, the hospital—and find out what will help valley business. Local businessman Rocky Kimball agreed it was time for the elected officials to take a leadership role.
“The solution will probably never come from staff positions. It’s going to come from leadership and creativity. You seem like very talented people, but this will require doing something different,” Kimball said.
Buck took issue with that, pointing out that most members of the public show up to public meetings only when things are going wrong. He issued a challenge to the local business community. “Get yourselves organized and bring back your concerns. Get on agendas and let’s have this discussion [about demand]. In Mt. Crested Butte we have a biannual business summit and it’s a great discourse that’s started to prove beneficial. It needs to happen in a big way from the private side,” Buck said.
Huckstep tried to bring the meeting back on track, reminding the group that he was simply asking whether the Citizen’s Advisory Committee was the best group to begin that discussion, and it was decided that a formal meeting between the RTA and the Committee might be the best place to start.

No drive for a tax increase
One thing that doesn’t seem to be gaining traction is the idea of asking for a tax increase to grow funds for the air program, though that idea isn’t officially off the table. The topic will be added to the joint meeting between the RTA and the Citizen’s Committee, but no one on the RTA board was able to indicate adamant support for the idea.
Commissioner Swenson said she would need a lot more information before agreeing to a tax increase, and the directors of both area chambers of commerce indicated that many of their members were adamantly opposed to the idea.
“I don’t think they understand or respect the return on investment. For what they are paying now they don’t see any type of return. They understand the bus part but there would be mass education needed on the air component,” said Dan Marshall, director of the Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce.
Perhaps the one thing that is most clear at this point is that the number of winter visitors arriving at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Airport is on the decline. According to Moffett, four years ago, there were 28,000 arrivals and this year there are 20,000. He said that overall, airline ticket sales are down 6.8 percent year to date and the real concern is the Denver service, where the load factor is 43 percent. Last year, it was 47 percent.
RTA executive director Scott Truex agreed with Moffett. “That is the biggest concern because United might want to reduce winter flights even further.”
So really, the questions remain the same: How does the valley generate demand for flights, maintain a robust air program and fund that program? Parties with big, bold ideas—from the government or the private sector—are welcome.