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Gordon Autry earned his pilot’s license as a teenager in the 1940s. By 21, he was a flight instructor and later helped chart the route for I-70 from the air. The aviator, always sharply dressed in a three-piece suit and with slicked-back hair, particularly loved flying recreationally from Denver to Vail and figured Front Rangers might pay for the pleasure.
Autry’s Vail Airways took off in 1965, and at its peak in 1976, the carrier—by then renamed Rocky Mountain Airways (RMA)—flew 124,000 passengers among 18 Colorado towns and cities annually. “It really revolutionized the way people thought about airplane travel here in Colorado,” says former RMA pilot Terry McVenes. No longer just for the jet set or big city businessmen, air travel was now also a quick, cost-effective way to move around Colorado, whether you were an avid skier living on the Front Range or a mountain town local who needed to trek for work, for medical care, or simply to get away.
Then Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, which removed federal restrictions on the prices airlines could charge and the routes they could operate. The move increased competition and eventually allowed bigger firms to push RMA and other commuter airlines out of the market with cheaper flights, even though they offered less frequent service and flew to fewer small airports. “Better highways were a factor, too,” McVenes says. “They made it easier to drive up to the mountains, which wasn’t quite the case before they built the Eisenhower Tunnel or when one storm could tie up traffic for days before weather forecasting improved.” Dwindling ticket sales forced Autry to sell in 1986, and the airline’s new owners shuttered it five years later, ending short-haul’s heyday in Colorado.
Now, the quick trips Autry pioneered might be making a comeback. In May, a report by international management consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that short-haul flights, which it defines as trips from around 100 to 500 miles on a plane with 50 passengers or fewer, could become a $115 billion industry by 2035 as new technologies emerge and roads become increasingly congested. I-70’s notoriously bad traffic has already helped lead to a 27 percent increase in passengers at Eagle County Regional Airport near Vail between 2017 and 2022, says terminal operations manager Jodi Doney.
This short-haul revival isn’t only for die-hard skiers. Last spring, the Colorado Division of Aeronautics and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory began studying, in part, how electric airplanes could be used to connect smaller communities across the state, including for commuting by plane. “If Gordon were still here, he would’ve loved these efforts,” says Dennis Heap, another former RMA executive, of his former boss, who died in 2012. “Gordon always used to say air service needs to be like bus service: accessible to the people.”