Some officials here in the heart of ski country want to re-brand the state’s third busiest airport so that out-of-state and international visitors aren’t terrified by the prospect of landing on a dusty mountain airstrip in a blinding snowstorm.The Eagle County Airport, located between the former ranching towns of Eagle and Gypsum on the western edge of Eagle County, is in fact an ultra-modern facility with a new radar and instrument landing system that allows planes as large as Boeing 757s to land in all kinds of weather.
During the winter, skiers and snowboarders from around the world pour into the airport on direct flights from New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and Houston. The facility 35 miles west of Vail is the second busiest airport in the state (behind Denver International Airport) during winter months and the third busiest overall (behind DIA and Colorado Springs) — based on the number of private and commercial flights, not the number of passengers.
Vail Resorts, which owns Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas and drives the majority of traffic through the airport, markets it as the Vail-Eagle County Airport, even though it’s technically called the Eagle County Airport and its airport code if you’re looking to book a flight is EGE.
When the ski company hired a new ad agency in February (Denver-based Genesis), they charged the firm with re-branding the airport to build up greater national and international awareness, as well as to solidify the facility’s growing reputation as the state’s premier ski resort portal (20 percent of the airport’s passengers drive on to Aspen, Glenwood, Steamboat and other mountain destinations).
Genesis came up with Colorado International Airport, a name quickly rejected by county officials who run the airport and other business leaders. Second choice was either Vail National or Vail International, both of which have been criticized by purists who feel those names sell out to the ski company and give short shrift to county tradition.
“It’s no slight to the fact that the airport is in Eagle County, run by Eagle County, a huge asset to Eagle County and Eagle County has done great things for the airport,” said Vail Resorts air program coordinator Gabe Shalley. “It’s just, what is going to get you the farthest in a marketing campaign when you’re talking about the name of the airport? And Eagle County has no brand recognition outside of Eagle County.”
Eagle County Commissioner Peter Runyon is leaning toward keeping the current name (after the airport authority chipped in $45,000 toward the new branding campaign), but if it has to change, he prefers Vail-Eagle County Airport, which Genesis found causes brand confusion.
“All I’m interested in doing is getting more people to land at Eagle County Airport than DIA, if for no other reason than to mitigate traffic along the I-70 corridor,” said Runyon, pointing to the inordinate number of weather-related highway closures this past ski season between Vail and Denver. “One of the problems is people have a bad impression of the reliability of landing at the (Eagle County) airport, and that was based on a few years ago before we had the new ILS and radar.”
Runyon said he’s been in the Vail area since the 1970s, when the fledgling resort played perennial second fiddle to ski-town rival Aspen in the national and international consciousness. He understands the value of the Vail brand now that it’s grown for more than four decades.
“There is a huge national awareness of the name Vail, and that was even more true when (former president) Jerry Ford brought his winter White House here,” said Runyon, who also appreciates those who want to remain true to the region’s pre-skiing past.
“There’s also an emotional attachment, and it’s really important to a lot of people because they fear the loss of identity of Eagle and Gypsum,” Runyon said. “It’s just as legitimate to market and give some brand-name identity to Eagle as it is to Vail.
“If I felt there was a compelling and overwhelming reason (to change the name), if skier numbers were down and the county was having other problems, I might look at this differently, but we have an incredibly robust tourism economy.”
Shalley said the ski company was hoping to have a decision by now in order to market the new name to summer tourists. Now she’s hoping a new name and brand will be ready for next ski season.
Eagle County Airport typically sees nearly 250,000 commercial passengers a year, and also does a robust private aviation business. Shalley isn’t sure if last ski season’s traffic problems along I-70 will boost commercial airline passenger numbers next ski season.
“Hard to say, considering where fuel prices are right now and the state of the airline industry and the fact we’re doing a pretty good job filling a lot of seats into the airport already,” said Shalley, alluding to the fact that the airport wound need more flights to increase its passenger traffic. She said beleaguered Frontier may join American, Continental, Northwest and United in flying into Eagle County next ski season.
“We haven’t heard anything definitive; I would put the odds at 50-50 of (Frontier) coming into Eagle County next winter,” said Shalley, who added that bankruptcy may make a lucrative market like Vail more attractive to the Denver-based discount carrier.