United flies into bankruptcy court
SUMMIT COUNTY – United Airlines’ bankruptcy filing shouldn’t affect tourism in Summit County immediately – but the long-term ramifications are difficult to predict.
United Airlines (UAL) officials filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday, two weeks shy of the peak of ski season.
“The economy is just turning around, and people are starting to think about skiing again,” said Breckenridge Mayor Sam Mamula. “There is a negative psychological impact. It’s all the uncertainties.”
The psychology of flying
Mamula wonders if travelers will be wary.
“That’s the worry in the short-term,” Mamula said. “A family of four contemplating a vacation could say, “If we book a flight, are they going to honor it?’ The implication is they’ll come out of bankruptcy with a new plan, be lean and mean. On the other hand, if they don’t get cooperation from the unions, they could be liquidated. That’s not good for us.”
Breckenridge Central Reservations employees already have fielded calls from travelers posing hypothetical questions about the airline’s viability, said Bill Wischowski, director of operations there.
“If people are going to come to Colorado, they’ll find a way to get here,” he said. “I still think the overriding challenge in Colorado is the economy.”
Marie Albertson, the Summit County chamber’s marketing and events director, agreed.
“Bankruptcy is a reflection of the economy,” she said. “The good news is, United is not pulling out of Denver, and they’re not cutting back on flights. Flights coming into Denver are full.”
Part of the problem, some people think, is UAL’s virtual monopoly at Denver’s airport. Mamula said he hopes ski area officials can work with smaller airlines to obtain deals to keep skiers coming to Colorado. He also hopes other airlines might be able to buy gates from UAL.
Mamula believes diversification will be the key to success – although in the short term, he said, United’s reorganization plan could result in fewer flights and higher prices.
UAL’s bankruptcy could mean marketing experts will have to work differently – but not necessarily harder – to draw crowds to Summit County.
“It’s not like we didn’t see this coming,” said Lucy Kay, vice president of marketing for Breckenridge Ski Resort. “We’ve got our Kids Fly Free program in place on United and American into Eagle (County). It’s up to United to reassure customers that they’re going to keep flying, and they’re doing that.”
Kay doesn’t expect travelers to shift to other airlines – or destination markets – in the short term.
“It’s a little early to call,” she said. “Last year, we expected a huge drop in the fly market, and that never happened. We were surprised by that. We’ll be ready to move marketing if we need to, but we need to wait to see if there’s a change. It’s not that we’re not worried, but you don’t do anything until you can identify a trend.”
Tourism officials also will keep a close eye on UAL’s restructuring.
“It sounds like everything will be OK,” said Jackie Johnson of Trips ‘N Travel in Dillon. “All my wholesalers are still using United, and I would think if they thought there was a big problem they wouldn’t want to jeopardize their business.”
Johnson, however, recommends travelers start buying trip insurance again. Many airlines discontinued such insurance after last year’s terrorist acts and now are starting to offer default coverage that reimburses travelers for cancelled trips and vacation packages.
“I hope maybe management can get their act together,” Johnson said. “Colorado really needs United.”
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