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With winter travel to Colorado resort communities very unclear, airlines are showing “unprecedented” flexibility

What is usually a set-in-stone schedule of flights is an Etch-a-Sketch this fall as Colorado resorts struggle to gauge demand for skiing and airlines work to accommodate coronavirus-wary travelers.

Travel within Gunnison has been restricted to residents only during the COVID-19 pandemic. People traveling from out of county or the state of Colroado must inform the Health Department of the number of people arriving, where they will be staying if they are a 2nd home owner and must have their own supplies and be self quarantined for 7-10 days. Gunnison County has 108 positive COVID-19 cases and 5 deaths and is one of the most highly infected areas per capita in Colorado.
A United Airlines flight from Denver arrives at the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport in Gunnison, Colorado on May 7, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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By the end of a typical September, skiers are booking flights and planning winter vacations. And resorts that depend on those jet-setting skiers — like Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride and Vail — are seeing hotel reservations filling up by the arrival of fall. 

But this is not a typical fall. Nor was it a typical summer. And it won’t be a typical winter as the essential flow of skiers through regional airports remains unclear even as the first flakes fly in the Colorado hills. 

What is usually a set-in-stone schedule of flights is an Etch-a-Sketch this fall as resorts struggle to gauge demand for skiing and airlines work to accommodate wary travelers. 

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As airlines court travelers with empty middle seats, suspended change fees and low prices, they also are working closely with resort communities to adjust schedules, flight frequency and capacity as the winter leisure travel market takes shape.

“What we really appreciate from the airlines is they are being so flexible,” said Matt Skinner, the CEO of the Colorado Flights Alliance that negotiates flights into Montrose and Telluride airports. 

“Flexibility” is not a word usually associated with airlines. But it’s commonly heard right now, as resort communities find themselves as valuable to the airlines as the carriers are to the towns.

Airlines have been hard hit by the pandemic, with mass furloughs, layoffs and slashed routes. Each carrier is reacting differently. 

Delta, for example, last month suspended flights from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City into the airports serving Aspen, Steamboat, Vail and Telluride. But then Southwest, Allegiant, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue stepped up, offering service to regional airports for the first time. And heavyweights like American and United cranked up flights into regional airports as well.

Airlines seem resigned to the fact that business travel will not soon rebound, so they appear to be relying on leisure travel to sustain them through the pandemic. And that reliance is translating into airlines negotiating with airports feeding destinations like ski areas and beach towns. 

“We are pretty thrilled with the winter capacity and plans at Eagle County Regional Airport,” said Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, which has worked with airlines to maintain service into all its markets except for the Delta flight from Salt Lake City. “I think the Vail brand — and the same can be said for other destinations like Telluride and Aspen — really helps as our winter season air routes are well established and have historically performed well, from the airline perspective.”

It was pretty quiet at Aspen Pitkin County Airport on Memorial Day, where four commercial flights landed at the airport. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

No one knows for sure what demand will be like. The number of skiers coming to Colorado via the state’s resort-serving airports — Aspen, Eagle, Gunnison, Hayden, Montrose and Telluride — could be even with recent years. It could be lower. It might even be higher. 

So resorts that rely on airlines are working closely with American Airlines, United and new airline arrivals to the Colorado regional airport scene. 

One thing resort communities don’t want is an airline abandoning a route. And it looks like rural resort airports are maintaining routes that ferry travelers from essential metro areas across the country.  

Ski areas and resort businesses invest deeply in urban locations that deliver skiers. It can be difficult to regain footing in critical cities, like Phoenix, Chicago, Houston or Los Angeles, after even a single season without air service. 

Resort negotiations with airlines used to be pretty one-way discussions with resort communities locking into season-long schedules. Many communities, like Crested Butte, Steamboat, Telluride and Vail, offer the airlines guaranteed cash should seats go empty on scheduled flights.  

Airlines are telling resort partners they will shift jets and flight schedules as a more clear picture of demand for the season takes shape. Another area of flexibility has airlines waiting until 45 days or less before announcing flight schedules. For example, United is still building service schedules into resort communities for November, barely six weeks from now.

Some airlines appear open to discussing the once iron-clad guarantee programs that had resort communities paying when skiers didn’t fly. 

“Our airline partners are so flexible in what they are trying to do with these communities and those airports, it’s just unheard of. It’s refreshing. Everyone seems to realize we are all in this mess together,” said Kent Myers, whose Air Planners consulting firm negotiates flights for resort communities across the West. “Let me tell you, that has never happened with me working with airlines in the last 35 years. Never.”

A United Airlines ticket counter sits vacant 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, Colorado on May 7, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One change this summer in Colorado’s resort destinations involves second-home owners visiting for longer periods. Looking at increases in resort-area school enrollment, many suspect the trend will continue through the winter, with maybe a parent returning home every so often. That means more people flying out of resort-region airports toward major metro areas like Chicago, Dallas, Houston and New York. 

Another upside of airline willingness to adjust this winter is crowd control. Small-town destinations are hoping to adjust the flow of vacationers with airlines tweaking capacity and flights.

“In trying to predict winter after watching summer, what we also watch are where certain metropolitan areas are in their COVID arc and their direction in terms of returning to school and returning to work,” Skinner said. “And we are in the unique position where we can help manage  crowds, if we need to, using air traffic.”

Airlines, seeking any traveler insight during this uncharted time, also are asking resorts about reservations at their lodges and ski areas. And they are closely watching regional COVID reports to anticipate local heath orders potentially limiting visitors.

“Airlines are hungry for any kind of information,” said Bill Tomcich, who works with Myers at the Aspen airport, where American Airlines last week announced an additional 467 flights — roughly 30,000 seats coming from Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix and L.A. — between December through April on top of the 703 the airline had on the books last season. That’s almost enough to make up for the departure of Delta, which suspended all its flights into Colorado’s regional airports. 

Airlines have decades of travel data spinning through complicated algorithms. They can predict demand based on travel models anchored in that historical data. Unpredictable travel patterns, changing demand and local public health orders during the pandemic are wreaking havoc on those models. 

Airlines appear ready to serve communities that are embracing visitors. And visitors are flocking to outdoor destinations. So if ski resort communities remain able to host skiers this winter, airlines are ready to deliver those vacationers. 

“Places that people want to fly and where passengers are being welcomed, that’s where the airlines are investing,” Tomcich said. The airlines are almost taking a surgical approach to matching capacity with demand. There are just unprecedented levels of creativity and flexibility right now.”

Rising Sun