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How a SoCal Ski Resort Lured United to Expand Its Customer Base

If you live in Southern California, you know Mammoth Mountain as the best skiing within driving distance. If you're from anywhere else in the U.S., you probably don't even know the name. Mammoth presumably isn't happy about that, which is why it's now working with United to bring nonstops from San Francisco. This is one of those rare air subsidies that might be worthwhile.

Mammoth has gotten into the business of air subsidies in a big way. Previously, it was just with Horizon Air, which operates twice daily to LA and once daily to San Jose during the winter season. According to Mammoth Mountain, the ski resort, that deal continues. But now United is coming in.

United -- actually United Express -- will start daily service during the winter from San Francisco to Mammoth using 66-seat CRJ-700s. The flights are timed for an afternoon arrival in Mammoth with an evening return, perfect for a weekend away from San Francisco, but is there more to this?

For United, it's a straightforward move. According to Mammoth Mountain, there is a deal based on the percentage of seats filled. If United doesn't pass that threshold, then Mammoth will put money in. So it's low risk for United.

But for Mammoth, it's a bigger deal. Over 80 percent of winter traffic in Mammoth comes from Southern California. That's because even though the flight from San Francisco is shorter than from LA, the drive takes longer. And Bay Area residents have no reason to drive further when they can take an hour or two less to drive to Lake Tahoe.

So Mammoth wants to grow into Northern California. Horizon was its first stab at that, but San Jose is not the really big market is for the route. San Francisco not only taps into the market in the city, but it also brings in connecting possibilities. The flight times allow for connections up and down the West Coast, and if Mammoth wants to put money into promoting those markets as well, it could pay off.

Another consideration here (which I'm sure happened too recently for it to have impacted this announcement) is Horizon's recent decision to stop flying markets where it takes on the risk. Mammoth might be one of those markets that could face the axe when Alaska takes over planning functions. If that were to happen, the United service would become even more important for Mammoth's plans.

If Mammoth is serious about putting marketing dollars into changing its perception with Bay Area residents, then having this flight could be a key component to the strategy. If it doesn't work out this year, then hopefully Mammoth will have the good sense to let it die. If not, I'm sure United will be happy to continue to fly it until the funds run out.

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Photo via Flickr user lachshand, CC 2.0