Economy weathers missing flights
Business yet to take a big hit from missing Texas connection

An America West flight gets the go-ahead for departure Feb. 14 at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Last August, Durango Mountain Resort announced it would no longer subsidize direct flights between Durango and Texas. So far, local businesses say the cancellation has not had a huge impact on tourism./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

For the first time in more than a decade, winter travelers from Texas aren’t arriving in subsidized airplane seats as part of an effort by local business to beef up the winter economy. But the impact of the loss is still being measured.

In August, Durango Mountain Resort announced it would end its participation in subsidizing the direct flights, which usually took place once a week. It’s still the middle of the winter tourism season, yet DMR and other local businesses report that so far the lack of flights hasn’t busted the economy. All kinds of economic indicators are hanging steady, though business owners agree that the extra flights would have added to what so far has been a good season.

Scott Fortner, director of marketing at DMR, says that, to date, the number of skier days is up from the same time last year. He attributes some of that to a better-than-average snowfall. But he also says those winter flights from Texas would be a welcome enhancement.

“Having an air component would definitely boost our numbers,” Fortner says.

Resort officials, he says, are pleased to see a rise in skier days, even as they realize they may have lost some visitors because of the lack of airline service from target markets.

Since the early 1990s, DMR and a handful of other Durango tourism-related businesses had been ponying up money to help pay for chartered flights from Dallas and Houston. The intent was to provide nonstop, easy access for customers rather than see them scurry off to central Colorado or Utah. It worked, yet not well enough. In recent years, some business owners stopped participating or failed to pay their promised share. DMR ended up footing the bill. During the 2001-02 ski season, DMR paid Continental and American airlines a portion of the cost to bring tourist-laden flights to Durango each week. By the 2002-03 season, the number of flights had dropped to only one – the Continental Houston flight. That cost to DMR: $240,000.

When resort officials realized that business travelers, not tourists, took the majority – as much as 60 percent – of the seats, they decided the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“The majority of our skiers are from a drive market,” says Fortner. That means most people are willing to drive to stay and ski in Durango instead of taking nonstop flights. Ultimately, the return to DMR on the subsidies of the flights was negligible.

At this point, there hasn’t been much grumbling by local businesses who have been or could be impacted by the disappearance of the flights, though some owners say they are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“It’s hard to attribute any kind of numbers to flights,” says Peter Marshall, general manager of the DoubleTree Hotel. “You have to believe that any additional flights will help. But you really can’t quantify it.”

Charlie Siegele, ski-rental reservationist for Hassle Free Sports, says the shop has seen only a slight dip in rentals.

“Last year, when there were the flights coming in, we were getting maybe only 20 people off of each plane who would rent skis. And that’s if we were lucky,” he explains. “So, I would say we have been affected only a little.”

Economic indicators don’t show much either. A couple of years ago, DMR officials said that the subsidized flights aren’t just about getting skiers on the slopes. They estimated that for every dollar spent on the subsidy, visitors spend $6 to $10 at other businesses. Yet, according to the City of Durango’s monthly finance reports, lodgers’ tax and sales tax revenues for December and January are close to par with years past. Additionally, the number of travel packets the Durango Area Tourism Office has sent out to interested people is actually up 20 percent.

Still, DMR’s Fortner says those visitors who would come to Durango because of the subsidized winter flights would be a boon to the resort’s business, as well as the local economy. More so, Fortner explains that the additional airlines helped foster competition among the airlines, and ticket costs were lower.

Marshall says any dip in reservations at the Double Tree might be related to the axed flights, but he’s not ready to assign that kind of blame.

“My gut would tell me that the visits associated with skiing are down.”

Yet, he also says that business travel has “gone slightly up,” so people are still making it to Durango.

“We should be careful to say that we don’t need those visitors who would come in on those subsidized flights,” he adds. “Even though we are doing alright, having those fliers would make it even better.”






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