Airport is an economic jet engine |

Airport is an economic jet engine

Daily file photoDuring the ski season the Eagle County Regional Airport is the second-busiest in the state, and one of the busiest in the country.

An airport is a hole in the sky through which money falls.

The hole in Eagle County’s sky, the Eagle County Regional Airport, couldn’t drop more money into the local economy if it was filled with B-52s dropping gold bullion bombs.

All economies, and by extension all civilizations, develop along transportation corridors.

It has been thus throughout the ages, from the dawn of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, to the trade routes over which wars are waged, to the Erie Canal to the highway system.

Eagle County is no exception.

The tourism industry that drives Eagle County’s economic engine is fueled mainly by the Eagle County Regional Airport.

While I-70 brings more people through Eagle County, the airport brings more people to Eagle County who share the single-minded goal of disposing of their disposable income. Interstate 70 is the artery through which the county’s economic lifeblood flows, but the airport is the heart.

A study by the State of Colorado’s Division of Aeronautics found that more than $400 million found its way into Eagle County through the airport that year.

The numbers are impressive.

– $400 million annually.

– 1,200 jobs directly from the airport’s existence.

– 1,000 other jobs peripherally from airport economy.

– 200,000 passengers with a single goal in mind of stimulating the Eagle County economy, which brings us back around to our original point – $400 million annually.

That doesn’t count the construction work that goes on continually at both the airport and the private Vail Valley Jet Center, nor the building and business that’s burgeoning in the airport’s immediate vicinity in the Town of Gypsum.

Millions have been spent to reconstruct the runway, expand the facilities and improve infrastructure. Of that, 90 percent comes from Federal Aviation Administration grants. Some comes from the Colorado State Aeronautic Board, and the rest from revenues generated by the airport. Eagle County taxpayers haven’t spent one dime, directly, on the project.

The airport has been self-sufficient since 1996.

Success Is New

It hasn’t been this rosy for all that long. The airport was originally built in the 1940s as a fuel stop for military aircraft, and stayed tiny until the late 1980s.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the first commercial flight made its way into Eagle County. That year, 288 brave souls landed here on an airline that has since gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the independent presidential candidate and the Bull Moose Party.

Things began to take off, literally, in 1990 when America West offered the first ski season commercial service from Phoenix.

The airline would bring tourists in, and take locals out who wanted to play golf.

Now there are direct flights from major markets around the country.

The airport generates its revenues through landing fees for the commercial airlines, as well as a fee from the concessions operated in and around the airport. Four car rental companies operate in the terminal building, with four other off-airport car rental companies. The airport also collects revenues on their concessions.

All commercial airports have landing fees, which usually account for 4 to 6 percent of an airline’s operating cost.

And as the airport grows, so do the businesses in its proximity. The Town of Gypsum had the foresight a few years back to go on an annexation spree, staking its claim to the land surrounding the airport and ensuring its economic future. The town of gets a sales tax cut on all the jet fuel, and everything else, sold at the airport.

The Gypsum Gateway Airport Center is now inside the town boundaries, as well as several other businesses and commercial development parcels.

Heat and Pressure

The airport didn’t reach its current status as an economic engine without some clashes with both the public and private sectors.

The Vail Valley Jet Center was previously the only provider of commercial service, until the county built its terminal. The Jet Center’s ownership group, led by financier Henry Kravis, waged a high dollar and high profile battle over expansion and lease terms. That clash wasn’t settled until the Jet Center was sold to banker E.B. Chester and a group of investors.

The county also took considerable heat when the commissioners decided to build a second terminal, going into direct competition with the Jet Center. To complicate matters, the county was the Jet Center’s landlord.

Eventually they reached a pact of non-aggression, with the county handling the commercial flights and the Jet Center handling the private flights.

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