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Airlines flying empty planes to small Colorado airports plead for OK to cut service

Colorado's mountain tourist destinations are siding with airlines on temporary cutbacks, but they're fearful long-term loss of service. The airlines are making the ask despite pocketing federal coronavirus relief funds.

A passenger departs a United Airlines flight from Denver after it arrives at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport in Gunnison, Colorado on May 7, 2020. Six passengers were on the plane. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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As empty planes touch down in quiet Colorado communities to meet federal rules for taking COVID-19 relief money, airlines are pleading with the Department of Transportation to let them suspend service. And when their requests are refused, airlines are getting creative with flights into Colorado’s regional airports as travel collapses under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Airlines that have taken federal support under the CARES Act must maintain “reasonable and practicable” service. The major airlines are struggling under those definitions. Delta, American and United recently filed exemption requests to suspend flights into dozens of regional airports, including Eagle, Aspen, Gunnison and Montrose in Colorado. 

“Under any ordinary meaning of the term, it would not be ‘reasonable’ to require any carrier to place its airport staff and flight crews at risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus solely for the purpose of operating flights for which there is little or no actual demand, if the carrier can offer the few passengers in the affected community who do need to fly a reasonably convenient alternative from another airport that is just a 60-minute drive away,” reads Delta Airlines’ April 30 request for exemption

The airline cited law dictionary definitions of “reasonable” and “practicable” and reported a single passenger on its daily flights in and out of the Worcester, Massachusetts airport. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The CARES Act requires airlines to retain a minimum level of service to airports they served the week of Feb. 29, 2020 or the week of Aug. 4, 2019. That can be a challenge for airlines that provide different levels of service to resort destinations in the winter than in the summer. 

Last week the DOT denied service exemptions requested by American seeking to curtail service into Eagle, Aspen and Montrose, while allowing the airline to cut flights to Hawaii. The transportation agency also last week denied United’s request to cut service to several smaller destinations, including Gunnison after the airline inexplicably listed Aspen’s airport — a nearly 170-mile drive from Gunnison — as a viable replacement for service. 

Delta’s letter to the DOT cited the denial of American and United’s requests to illustrate how flying empty planes are a problem for the industry, not just a single airline. This week the DOT approved requests from ultra low-cost carriers JetBlue Airlines and Spirit Airlines to suspend service to Denver. Frontier Airlines recently secured similar exemptions

“The decisions the DOT is making in terms of which markets to grant exemptions for and which ones to deny are definitely precedent setting and something the airlines are all paying close attention to,” said Bill Tomcich, an Aspen-based consultant with Airplanners, which works with airlines and communities in Colorado. “It’s getting really interesting out there as airlines work through dramatically reduced demand. No one wants to see the airlines flying empty airplanes.”

A United Airlines ticket counter sits vacant on May 7, 2020 during what would normally be a busy time of the year for tourists flying into and out of the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport in Gunnison. Travel within Gunnison County has been restricted to residents only during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But that is happening. United’s thrice-weekly flights into Gunnison from Denver were averaging a single passenger per flight in recent weeks, Tomcich said. United has slashed service out of Denver to 92 destinations, down from 162. 

Hence the airlines’ increasingly urgent pleas to suspend service to remote destinations like Montrose, Gunnison, Eagle and Aspen, many of which have health orders with travel restrictions that are hardly welcoming outsiders.

As the DOT denies the requests, airlines are crafting unique routes. 

American is set to begin flying between Dallas-Fort Worth and Eagle on June 4 as part of the Vail Valley’s seasonal summer service. The airline this week met its CARES Act obligations by flying from Dallas to Eagle to Aspen to Montrose and back to Dallas. (The 29-mile Eagle to Aspen flight is the shortest commercial jet flight in the country, ever.)

Balancing the need of a community to remain part of the nation’s airline network and the needs of the airlines is tricky. Many of the communities, which have spent decades developing strong partnerships with airlines that deliver steady streams of vital tourists, support the airlines’ requests to suspend service. 

A United Airlines flight from Denver arrives at a quiet tarmac at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport in Gunnison, Colorado on May 7, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Aspen’s businesses and flight planners sent the DOT letters of support for United’s request to suspend service into the Roaring Fork Valley. Telluride’s  businesses and flight coordinators also stepped up to support American’s request to temporarily suspend flights to Montrose.

Resort towns that provide airlines with minimum revenue guarantees — including Vail, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Telluride — unequivocally supported the airlines canceling flights after the governor ordered Colorado’s ski areas to close on March 14. They would be on the hook for cash payments to the airlines if the flights continued.

“The airlines have been great partners in helping manage this service and helping us maintain it for the future and we are trying to be good partners to the airlines as well,” said Matt Skinner, the CEO of Telluride-based Colorado Flights Alliance, which negotiated 15 nonstop flights from 11 cities into the Telluride and Montrose airports, supporting Telluride’s destination tourism economy. 

These deals with airlines to service small airports in the mountains are critical to resort economies. Colorado’s resort landscape would not look like it does without the steady stream of tourist-toting jets. 

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

While resort communities are willing to work with airlines on short-term suspensions of service, there’s an undercurrent of fear that financially struggling airlines may not be able to return to the level of service in the mountains later this summer or next season. So resort flight wranglers, supported by local business taxes, are supporting some cuts in service but they are opposing wholesale shutdowns of flights into local airports. 

“With the airline network such an integral part of our economy, our longtime view is to keep a baseline network operating,” Skinner said. “Even if it’s lightly used, it’s a better play for the long term than trying to return from zero once travel opens up again.”

At the same time, resort communities are hoping their struggling businesses don’t reach a point where they can’t contribute to programs that support those streams of flying visitors. 

“My belief is that sustaining our air service will be more important than it has ever been as we recover from this,” said Tomcich, the Aspen-based consultant. “I’m sure that communities under financial obligations with minimum revenue guarantees are recognizing that fact.”