County gets long-sought airport radar
After more than six years of lobbying Congress and meeting with federal officials, Eagle County’s airport is slated to receive a top-notch radar system that will increase the number of planes allowed to land at the airport in the winter.The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to help fund a $6 million radar system will cut down on the number of planes that are denied access to the Eagle County Regional Airport during foul weather. Those diversions cost the local economy an estimated $63 million, according to a study conducted in 2001-02. “It will greatly improve the ability to get airplanes in and out and that will inure the local economy,” said Bill Payne, whose consulting firm, William E. Payne and Associates, has assisted the county in pursing the radar.The new system, called a beacon interrogator, or BI-6, can pick up signals from incoming airplanes flying under 10,500 feet. This will allow air traffic controllers at the Denver Center to guide in aircraft all the way to the runway. The airport’s system cannot do that, requiring incoming planes be visible from the airport’s tower before they can land. This process takes more time, and limits the tower to bringing in only four planes per hour in poor weather, and about 10 an hour the rest of the time. During busy times, many planes are forced to land elsewhere when the weather is poor.While the radar will help all operations at the airport, the Vail Valley Jet Center will likely realize the biggest benefit. The privately-owned jet center, which provides service to business and private jets, reported that 475 aircraft were denied access during the 2002-03 ski season. About 50 percent of the diverted planes were sent to Aspen’s airport, said Jack Ingstad, county administrator.The County Commissioners will be asked to fork over $1.5 million toward the system’s purchase – $500,000 more than the county had originally budgeted. But County Commissioner Mike Gallagher, who has worked toward getting this radar system since joining the board five years ago, said the extra expense will pay off in the end.
“Indeed, I think it’s the neatest thing since peanut butter and bread,” he said. Building and growing the county’s airport has been priority for the commissioners. Of the almost $80 million that has been poured into the airport, more than half has come out of the county’s budget, Gallagher said. Obtaining the radar was key for the airport’s continued growth, but county officials also are installing a new instrument landing system and are planning to create new plane approach routes. The combination of these three things should allow 18 to 20 planes to land per hour, Payne said. Still, getting the radar system seemed like a long shot at first. County commissioners looked for help from the state’s Aeronautics Board, and from former and current elected officials, including Colorado Sen. Benjamin Nighthorse-Campbell. In 2003, funds for Eagle County’s request were included in a transportation bill submitted to Congress. While it cleared the U.S. Senate, the airport’s request was removed by an appropriations committee. “Several times we thought we had it and it slipped through our fingers,” said Commissioner Arn Menconi.This time, they are getting the funding for certain.”We thought we were way down the list with regards to who was going to get the radar first,” said Commissioner Tom Stone. “I am pleased we were able to get it.”
The lobbying efforts helped, as did building a new control tower that could handle the radar system. “The FAA told us there were a number of airports going for the BI-6,” Stone said. “We went to the top of the list because we had a brand-new tower.”While it has been six years in the making for Eagle County, it normally takes longer for an airport this size to get funding for a radar like this, Payne said. “This is a powerful piece of equipment,” he said. “Eagle will be the envy of every airport around, including Aspen, which has (an older radar model).”FAA officials plan to visit the county in about two weeks to put the deal in writing and the county commissioners will formally approve the increase in the county’s contribution by the end of the month. County officials hope to have the new radar system installed before next ski season. Increasing the county airport’s landing capacity will also help the rest of the state, Payne said. “It gives another radar area that can help relieve some of the pressure elsewhere,” he said. “It’s a real feather in their cap to have this.”Airport service critical for tourism
Nearly half of all ski tourists surveyed by Vail Resorts said the convenience of flying into a local airport significantly influenced their decision to vacation in Eagle County, said Chris Jarnot, Vail Resorts’ vice president of marketing and sales. More planes landing year-round is the biggest “incremental benefit” to a new radar system, he said. “This dramatically improves the customer service experience,” he said. The No. 1 concern for business and convention groups wishing to come to Vail is convenient air service, said Frank Johnson, Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau president. “It’s just not convenient for meeting planners to have 1,000 people fly into Denver and get them up here,” Johnson said. “This will open the door for both winter and summer service.”Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 949-0555, ext. 607.
In terms of area, it’s the county’s smallest conservation deal ever. In terms of location, it’s one of the county’s rarest acquisitions.