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United tried to cut flights to Gunnison using some questionable geographic reasoning. The feds said no.

United Airlines, staggering after coronavirus shutdowns required 80% reduction in flights, asked to end flights to Gunnison, but federal regulators said no. Flights will continue, even though they're only 10% full.

A United Airlines Airbus A319 at Denver International Airport on July 19, 2019, which was forecast to be the hub's busiest day ever. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Earlier this month, United Airlines sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking to cease service into 12 airports and suspend service to six others, even though the airline took a federal grant that requires it to maintain flights during the coronavirus pandemic.

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One of those airports was Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, where United is the only airline offering flights in the spring, summer and fall. The carrier has daily service from Denver and Houston in the summer and daily flights from Denver in spring and fall. 

Current demand is low, with many destinations under travel restrictions, United said in its April 12 letter to the transportation department requesting “exemption from service obligation.”

Gunnison County has been one of the areas hardest hit in Colorado by the new coronavirus. Its residents have been under lockdown for weeks, with visitors — including second-home owners — being told to get out and stay out.

United Airlines cut 80% of its overall capacity for April, with planes flying nearly empty. Deeper cuts are anticipated in May, the airline said. 

“Passenger volume is in critical decline,” United said, pointing to an early April SEC filing showing its revenue had dropped $100 million a day in March, compared with March 2019.

“The public interest, including the interests of the American taxpayer, is not served by requiring airlines that received CARES Act grants to fly empty airplanes around the country,” the letter from United reads. 

MORE: Coronavirus has left Denver International Airport little more than an airplane parking lot

In support for its request to end service to Gunnison, United noted that Gunnison “can be efficiently and effectively served by flights at nearby airports” and listed Aspen’s airport as 48 miles away.

United failed to mention that while the two airports may be 48 miles apart as the plane flies, the drive takes close to four hours, covering at least 170 miles across the Western Slope. It also failed to mention that the Montrose airport is a 65-mile drive away.

The Department of Transportation this week granted United’s request to end service to remote tropical destinations but denied exemptions for United service into 14 airports, including Gunnison

“Clearly whoever did the reckoning wasn’t familiar with the Rocky Mountains,” said John Norton, executive director of Gunnison County’s Tourism and Prosperity Partnership. “We’ll enjoy continuing service, though I can appreciate United’s frustration with flying empty airplanes around the country.”

A request for comment from United was not returned on Thursday.

United also was denied its request to cut service to sought to cut service to Green Bay, Wisconsin; Ithaca, New York; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Valparaiso, Florida. The carrier described planes in and out of those airports as being about 10% full.

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