YVRA summer flights

Interest in jet service from Houston surges

Continental Airlines' new summer jet flight between Houston and Yampa Valley Regional Airport is loaded into travel agent and Internet computers and already reflecting reservation traffic.

"Wow," travel executive Linda Cain said Thursday. "They are definitely getting activity on that flight. Some of the cheaper seats (on certain high-volume days) are sold out. Obviously, this is really neat for Steamboat and that whole area."

Cain is owner and president of Cain Travel in Boulder, which purchased Steamboat-based Great Escape Travel last year. The dates she was checking for fares and availability were between July 7 and 14.

The Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association announced this month the much-anticipated signing of a contract with Continental to fly a single daily 50-passenger Embraer ERJ 145 jet between Houston and Yampa Valley. The service begins June 9 and continues through Sept. 7. The inbound flight departs Houston (IAH) at 5:30 p.m. and arrives in Hayden at 7:31 p.m. After spending the night on the apron, the plane will depart at 8:45 a.m., arriving back in Texas at 12:21 p.m.

The chamber and members of the resort industry negotiated revenue guarantees to bring the summer commuter jet flights to tap into a stream of tourists seeking to avoid summer heat and humidity, and to increase alternatives for Yampa Valley travelers.

Revenue guarantees for the flight were expected to be between $240,000 and $250,000, but depending upon the success of the flight, some of that money could be recouped. The figure also includes funds for marketing the flights. Chamber spokeswoman Riley Polumbus said her organization would approach the business communities in Hayden and Craig seeking $5,000 from each to help support the revenue guarantees.

"With these flight times, travelers will have convenient connections to nearly 100 cities throughout Texas, the Southeast, the Midwest and Eastern U.S.," said chamber executive Sandy Evans Hall. "It will enable vacationers an easier means to a cool summer getaway in the mountains."

Dean Risinger, vice president of corporate training and development for The Industrial Company in Steamboat, said not only does his company have a major office in Houston, but it recently acquired a company called GSI in Freeport, Texas, about 75 minutes south of Houston. TIC will be a frequent flier on the Continental jet, he predicted.

"We are moving a lot of people between Freeport and Houston and Steamboat recently," Risinger said.

TIC flies managers and executives back and forth between Houston and Hayden but also brings a significant number of rank-and-file employees to its training center here. That kind of travel for the summer has not been booked yet, Risinger said.

Resort officials chose Houston in part because it is one of Steamboat's strongest cities of travel origin during the winter season and lends itself well to cross marketing to a base of customers who already have an affinity for the valley. They also drew confidence from the fact that a similar flight from Houston to Montrose (serving Telluride) last summer performed very well.

Another goal of the summer flight program is to introduce competition into the market, which has been served only by United Express in recent summers.

"Definitely, competition in a market creates a great deal of interest and excitement," Cain said.

A quick survey of airfares on the Internet, both at Continental's corporate site and Expedia, shows that United's prices from Houston through Denver International Airport to YVRA are competitive with those offered by Continental for the direct flight this summer.

Lowest fare quotes for a round-trip leaving Houston on July 7 and returning July 14, which involved an over-Saturday stay, varied by only a few dollars.

Continental quoted $364.70, and Expedia.com quoted $369 for the same direct flight on the Continental regional jet.

United Express quoted the lowest fare of $370 on the same dates with a connection through Denver. United offered more flexibility with 16 options and fares that ranged up to $467, $477 and $563.

Janet Fischer, manager of airline programs for the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said she was able to locate Houston-Hayden roundtrips for as low as $293. While some classes of fares may be booked during peak days in July, Fischer said she was able to ascertain that all classes of fares were available on days in early August.

Cain said travelers, whether they work with a traditional travel agent or choose to book online, should be aware that the airlines constantly will adjust availability of certain classes of fare based on the pace of bookings and their goals for managing yields from each flight.

Consumers also can watch for advertised fare specials on the Houston-Hayden flight.

Air travelers booking the same July 7 through 14 vacation to Steamboat from cities beyond Houston will find connecting fares about $100 more than the direct flight from Houston.

On Expedia.com, Continental and United quoted a fare of $477 from Tampa to Hayden. The fare from Newark was $468 on Continental and $475 on United.

Expedia quoted an unsolicited air/lodging package at the Ptarmigan Inn for $1,189 and at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort for $1,395.

Risinger said his company would choose the direct flight from Houston over a connection through DIA every time.

"We've been totally frustrated this winter with that connection. I've had a Monday flight canceled three times," Risinger said. "One trip, I was scheduled to get to Houston at 11:30 a.m. and arrived at 8 p.m. The reliability has been really, really bad."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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