“We were told by Frontier that we wouldn’t be a part of the first round,” said Tom Hess, president of TMRAO, in an interview last week.
But some members of the business community disagree, including Telluride Ski and Golf Co. Chief Operating Officer Dave Riley, who is also on the TMRAO board, and Marketing Telluride Inc.’s Board President Dirk dePagter, saying the organization simply didn’t do enough.
Last year, Frontier Airlines issued a request for proposals on regional destinations that should be considered in its expansion. The TMRAO sent in an offer that did not include a minimum guarantee contract but included an offer to market the flight service if Telluride/Montrose was chosen.
Riley questioned this offer and told The Watch after Frontier’s announcement that, “I can’t help to think at this point that had we also proposed some amount of cash in a revenue guarantee contract in addition to the marketing support, it may have helped.”
Aspen, which was selected by Frontier, offered $10,000 in cash from the local business community to aid in the marketing of the flights while Logan, Utah offered up to $1.2 million and was not selected. The destinations, it seems, were selected not on monetary enticements alone but on a city-by-city business model basis.
“What I have been saying all along is that it didn’t matter how much money we put out there,” said Hess. “The key here in the second round is to make sure we’re in the mix. We are doing everything we can to make sure we are at the top of the list.”
“We thought our offer to be a strong offer,” said Rick Houston, vice-president of TMRAO. “It was three times stronger than what Durango got out. Logan, Utah put in $1.2 million and didn’t get the service. Certainly as we look at the next round of negotiations there will be discussions on how to get into their next round of services.”
Hess reiterated the fact that Telluride is not the only ski destination left out of the expansion, as Sun Valley, Idaho, Steamboat Springs and Vail also did not make the first round of expansion.
“We are going to be competing against them as well,” said Houston of Frontier’s second round of expansion. “We have to make sure our offer is enticing to them and we are working with MTI to make sure we put together a strong offer.
“We had anticipated that Frontier was going to be focused on year-round service” during the first round, he said. “We were hoping to make the cut but we know that the second round would probably be more for us.”
Frontier’s first-phase of planned regional expansion will be served by a new fleet of Bombardier Q400 aircraft designed for shorter-haul markets and mountain destination travel. Daily flight service from Denver will be offered at lower rates – some 40 percent cheaper. Regional destinations selected for the plan include Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, Durango-La Plata County Airport and Jackson Hole Airport. The expansion also includes flights to Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, Fargo, N.D., Missoula, Mont., and Bozeman, Mont.
What remains in debate is the type of service Telluride visitors are looking for. Are visitors more inclined to want nonstop service from eastern destinations at a higher premium? Or are visitors looking for a cheaper price with a stop in Denver and more travel time options?
“I have been doing this for over 20 years,” Hess said. “The reality is that we don’t want our eggs all in one basket. You never know what is going to happen and it would not be prudent for us to say lets go put all our eggs into the Denver basket. There are air surveys that we do every year that shows people pick Telluride because we have non-stop service from Houston, Dallas and Chicago.”
Houston agreed that both non-stop and Denver-stop packages are being sought after by the air organization.
“We really want to build both,” Houston said. “Our load factors on various points of origin are very strong. There is a lot of demand out there and a lot of people don’t like to change flights in Denver. They want a direct flight. Obviously we are very interested in pursuing increasing the lift out of Denver to sustain our tourism economy.”
While it is unclear when Frontier will announce its next round of expansion, the air-carrier’s Bombardier Q400, a 74-passenger turboprop plane that has been touted as being specifically designed for mountain travel, will not be certified to land at the Telluride Regional Airport until after the runway’s expansion is completed.
“Right now we are looking at 2012,” said Airport Manager Rich Nuttall of the planned completion date. “Of course that is always counting on funding from the FAA. The airplane is terrific. It will have the power and seat capacity to come to Telluride once the runway project is complete. It is the big brother of the Dash 8 that come in right now, which has 38 seats. It [Q400] will basically double the capacity.”
For now, Houston isn’t counting out the benefits of Frontier’s expansion to Grand Junction and Durango.
“The fact that Frontier chose Grand Junction and Durango is still a positive thing for our region,” he said. “As a lodging operator, we have always marketed the other regional airports as a viable way into Telluride. And the fact that they chose two Western Slope destinations shows their interest in us as well.
The TMRAO and MTI’s respective boards have planned a joint meeting on March 4 to work on the Frontier expansion issue.