Airport terminal to remain open during $34 million renovation, facelift | VailDaily.com

Airport terminal to remain open during $34 million renovation, facelift

GYPSUM — An airport is still a hole in the sky through which money falls, and more than $34 million will land in Gypsum this year to upgrade and renovate the Eagle County Regional Airport terminal, part of $55 million in recent airport upgrades that will not directly cost local taxpayers one thin dime.

The terminal will be remain open while the project is underway, Eagle County officials said Friday, Feb. 9.

The $34 million terminal upgrade is part of a 20-year improvement plan that includes expanding the terminal, adding air bridges and improving traffic flow.

It began three years ago with the $25 million in improvements to the runway apron, the concrete parking area where park jets are parked.

"We making great strides to make sure the terminal is not only fully operational, but we're also running all six gates," said Kip Turner, Eagle County's director of aviation.

Follow the money

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It's all part of a 20-year master plan to make sure he airport remains one of the region's economic hubs.

"Although the winter season has historically been the busiest time of year for the local area, the summer recreation activities have started to attract a warm weather crowd, as well," that master plan says.

The Federal Aviation Administration and other federal regulations demand that money generated through airline fees, federal grants and concessions stays where it's generated. In our case, that would be at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

Under the plan, airlines will foot the bill for the $34 million terminal expansion through the fees they pay to operate at the airport. Those fees run about $2.2 million a year, according to Eagle County data.

Construction is scheduled to begin in April, after the winter flights end with the conclusion of the ski season.

Apron project, too

The three-year $25 million Eagle County Regional Airport apron project also did not directly cost local taxpayers a dime.

The Federal Aviation Administration picked up 90 percent of the tab through its airport improvement program. That money comes from taxes on fuel and use fees, not from general taxes.

About 2.5 percent comes from the Colorado Department of Transportation's fuel excise taxes.

The remaining money, $1.2 million, comes from the Eagle County Regional Airport's reserve funds, generated by user fees and airline fees.

The apron project was designed in 2011 and the first phase was completed in 2013. The final phase was completed last summer.

Billion dollar benefit

Before the economy tanked in 2007-08, the airport's economic impact was around $1 billion a year, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. In the years following 2008, the Colorado Department of Transportation put the annual economic impact at around $634 million.

Commercial air service began at the airport in 1989 with a total of 277 passengers that entire year.

About the airport

The Eagle County Regional Airport began as a plot of land purchased by Louise Ellen Cooley, according to Kathy Heicher and the Eagle County Historical Society.

Barnstormers would land there to give rides and perform demonstrations. In the 1930s, airport supporter Harry A. Nottingham began his term as county commissioner and the concept of developing the airport gained momentum. In 1939, E.G. Berry, an engineer with Federal Aviation Administration's Denver Airports District Office, found the location for a new airport on Cooley Mesa to be ideal, filling the gap between Leadville and Grand Junction.

Around the same time, a county commissioner and a local resident borrowed equipment to create a proper road to the airstrip. That road project cost less than $20.

When the U.S. became involved in World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Authority acquired the additional airport property from the Herin Family. The Civil Aeronautics Authority leveled the land and constructed a 300-foot-wide-by-3,000-foot-long emergency grass landing strip. This strip was used as an emergency landing facility for aircraft travelling to the West Coast across the central Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Eagle County Regional Airport Expansion

How much

• $34 million

What that buys

• 91,000 square feet: Size of the terminal currently.

• 141,000 square feet: Size of the terminal after the expansion.

The 50,000 square feet of additional space includes departure lounge and concessions space that will accommodate people in restaurants and bars, where passengers can relax and also keep an eye on their gate; six new gates, four upstairs and two downstairs; expanded passenger hold rooms and reconfigured security.

Who’s paying

• The airlines are picking up the tab through the fees they pay to operate at the airport. The airlines pay their rent based on airport operating costs, and part of those operating costs covers the existing debt.

• Millions of dollars in previous debt was scheduled to be paid off this year. That would have cut debt payments from $2.2 million to $1.3 million per year. In turn, that would have cut the airlines’ payments to the airport almost in half.

• The airlines agreed to keep their current payment levels, as part of the plan to pay for airport terminal expansion and improvements. That money will pay off the new bonds.

• Those bonds will be sold this month: $29.5 million at around 4 percent interest. The airport’s credit rating is baa-2 through Moody’s.

• Jet bridges for the four new upstairs gates will be purchased separately. The airport authority has stashed enough money in its savings account that it can pay cash for four jet bridges, around $700,000 each.

• The airlines will pay a fee for every person who walks through those jet bridges. Those fees will generate about $350,000 a year.

Airport Fact vs. Fiction

County tax dollars are being spent on this project.

False: No Eagle County tax dollars are used to fund airport operations. The airport operates completely on its own revenue sources, derived from airline fees, concessionaire revenue, Federal Aviation Administration grants, lease payments, etc.

The county could spend this money on other community needs

False: The FAA and other federal regulations require that every cent of money generated from fees and grants at the airport must be spent on the airport for aviation purposes.

If the county stopped making expensive improvements, flights would be more affordable.

False: The fees the county charges airlines to operate in the Eagle County airport account for about 3 percent to 5 percent of the airlines’ total operating costs at the airport. There are no guarantees the airlines would lower ticket prices by a corresponding amount if fees were reduced.

The county is building for future growth and this project is not necessary project right now.

Debatable: The county says the improvements will position the airport to accommodate future growth but also address immediate foot traffic flow issues in the terminal.

This project should be deferred until the economy improves

Doubtful: The county is paying off prior debt and wants to maintain current airline payment levels. Airline rates and charges are based on the airport’s debt service and operating fees. Lower debt also means lower fees from the airlines.

Source: Eagle County Airport Terminal Corp.