GYPSUM, Colorado - The Eagle County Regional Airport is the first piece of the Vail Valley many guests see. Just in time for the new season, the airport's passenger terminal has received some significant upgrades.
Most people will first notice an expanded security screening area. Airport manager Greg Phillips said an off-season renovation has expanded the security area from two lanes to four. Beyond that, the screening area has introduced new full-body scanners.
Those scanners no longer use X-rays but a new type of wave that Federal Aviation Administration officials say should allay flyers' fears about being exposed to X-ray radiation.
"It's state-of-the-art equipment," said Gabe Shalley, who manages Vail Resorts' commercial flight programs. "They're really ahead of the curve out there."
Phillips said the new-tech scanners will allow the federal Transportation Security Agency to more efficiently screen passengers using the same number of employees it had at the airport last year.
To expand the screening area, the fairly narrow passage has been widened between the open-to-the-public south side and once-you're-in-you're-in secure area on the north side. The improvements have also allowed airport officials to provide more space for concessions on the south side of the terminal.
Phillips said a new cafe is near completion on that side of the terminal. The new business will offer snacks, drinks and places to recharge phones, tablets and laptops. Better yet, Phillips said a new agreement with the company that provides all the concessions at the airport requires that company to keep its prices within 10 percent of what's charged for the same goods in Eagle and Gypsum.
It's all part of an effort to make the airport as welcoming as possible for people, most of whom are headed toward Vail, Beaver Creek and, sometimes, Aspen.
"The airport is more than just a place to run passengers through," Phillips said. "It's a place to experience."
The trick, Phillips said, was to provide a mountain resort experience on a public facility budget.
The work at the airport "goes hand in hand with what we're trying to do," Shalley said. "The better the experience people have with any of our partners, from restaurants to taxis, the better for all of us."
The most expensive thing on the list of improvements - all of which were paid through airport revenue and grants from federal agencies - is a $6 million baggage system. That system, Phillips said, should make checking luggage an easier process.
While the carousels for inbound passengers remain, Phillips said those systems were upgraded as well, with an eye toward getting the system to work more effectively.
For those checking bags on the way out, the process will now start curbside, with luggage being placed on conveyor belts, then whisked into the great beyond of the back room for scanning, then sending.
While the airport may be more welcoming this season, there will be one fewer flight - an American Airlines flight from La Guardia airport in New York is no longer on the schedule. Still, Phillips said, there are other direct flights from New York and New Jersey still coming in. Since seats are usually available on those flights, Phillips said he won't be surprised to see passenger numbers on those planes go up this season.
While American started bringing in a daily flight from Dallas Nov. 15, the winter season won't start in earnest until December. And Vail Resorts and a local group dedicated to boosting flights are working to ensure those flights keep coming.
"We're not going to just sit here and hope they come," Phillips said. "We're going to continue to press forward."