TELLURIDE – Projections for the 2010 calendar year indicate that the Telluride Regional Airport may not meet its threshold minimum of 10,000 passengers boarding commercial flights leaving the airport – or enplanements – required for it to receive $1 million in capital improvements funding from the federal government next year.
“The airline industry has changed quite a bit,” said Scott Stewart, Executive Director for the Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization, a quasi-public enterprise that underwrites commercial air traffic to the region, who indicated that the decline is the result of multiple factors.
Beyond a volatile industry, Great Lakes Airlines reduced its service into TEX, while service the TMRAO was pursuing with US Airways for this summer didn’t materialize when the airline’s contract carrier, Mesa Airlines, went into bankruptcy, he said.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
“It’s partially true that it’s a challenge to get the aircraft here, but that’s not the only reason,” said TEX Airport Manager Rich Nuttall, who indicated his belief that Telluride air traffic has largely declined because of the TMRAO’s overarching guarantee strategy.
While 86 percent of the TMRAO’s funding comes from excise taxes imposed on restaurants and lodging in Mountain Village and Telluride, it spends 92 percent of that funding to support flights into the Montrose Airport.
Nuttall allowed that the changing industry argument “might be easily said for the last couple of years,” but, “It hasn’t been the fact over the last 15 years.”
Regardless of the cause of the declines, efforts are underway to try to right the situation.
“For past 90 days there has been strong focus on the TEX enplanement level,” said Larry Mallard, who replaced Tom Hess as Chair of the TMRAO board following the latter’s resignation from that position in February.
One such effort is a cooperative marketing effort being shared by the TMRAO, TEX, the Telluride Tourism Board/Marketing Telluride Inc., the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. and various local lodging companies that is trying to boost traffic at TEX, specifically addressing empty seats on Phoenix flights during the month of March, Mallard explained.
“I was really excited to see the collaboration and cooperation involved,” between the various entities, he said.
The promotion gives back $100 to anyone who books a flight into TEX during the month of March and lodging at the same time, said TTB Chief Executive Officer Scott McQuade.
“The goal is to encourage users to come into the Telluride Regional Airport,” he said.
The plan serves a dual purpose of highlighting the airport’s convenience to Telluride, and helping give the airport a boost in numbers.
The majority of the effort is an online component using means such as email blasts and banner advertising, but some money has also been spent on radio, television and print advertising, McQuade said
He called the spend “a healthy amount for this short a period” and indicated it also targets West Coast markets with frequent air service into Phoenix.
“It’s definitely making the phones ring,” he said.
While the low enplanement projections are an issue, the potential loss of the federal capital funding, which is reviewed and awarded annually, does not signal impending doom for airport operations.
“It would not effect the operations of the airport,” said Nuttall. “The operating budget is self sustaining.”
But efforts should be made to maintain and expand service with existing carriers, he said.
“We’re working with our present carriers to try to increase [this] summer and next winter’s service,” said John Micetic, Chairman of the TEX board of directors.
Planned runway improvements that would upgrade the TEX runway to accommodate larger capacity aircraft should also help, but there are a few remaining hoops to jump through beyond that achievement.
The Federal Aviation Administration needs to develop new runway approach minimums for the aircraft TEX is hoping to lure here, and the terminal needs to be enlarged to accommodate more passengers, Nuttall said.
“In the short term over next 12-18 months we have a lot of work to do and challenges to get through,” he said.
“Once those [improvements] are done I feel confident that we’ll be on our way to seeing more success,” he continued.
In the meantime, “We’re very aggressively pursuing service,” said Stewart.
“In this business you can’t really take anything for granted,” he continued. “You have to keep moving in a pretty hard way to capture service.”
“You kind of have to be on it all the time.”