Eagle County Regional Airport projects come as facility sees new growth
By the numbers
$34 million: Estimated cost of the terminal expansion project at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
$2.4 million: Cost of four new passenger boarding bridges.
24 percent: Increase in the number of commercial airline seats available at the airport during the 2017-18 ski season.
10 percent: Increase in airline passengers during the past ski season.
Source: Eagle County
GYPSUM — There was a time earlier this century when Eagle County Regional Airport was the state’s second-busiest during the winter. Then came a triple-whammy of airline consolidation, a switch to smaller aircraft and a crushing national economic slump.
Starting in about 2008, both flights and passenger numbers started to decline at the airport, a trend which lasted for several years.
Both those numbers have turned around recently, with new routes coming during the 2017-18 ski season, and more and better equipment flying into the airport.
The United Airlines flight to and from Denver International Airport recently upgraded to what Eagle County Aviation Manager Kip Turner called “main line” jets. Those jets, usually Boeing 737s or Airbus 319s, generally have about 130-passenger capacities. That means more people can board a connecting flight from Denver to Eagle County.
Airport capacity was also boosted when American Airlines last year announced daily service to Eagle County from the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
In addition to those flights, Turner said both United and American are now flying here from Los Angeles. Service has been expanded from Salt Lake City, Utah and San Francisco. More flights will come from Washington, D.C., in the coming ski season, and flights will be available from all three major airports in Newark, New Jersey, and New York City.
Rising passenger numbers
That work by both airport officials and the EGE Air Alliance — a consortium of local businesses and governments dedicated to expanding service into the airport — has been paying off lately.
Turner noted that enplanements, the number of people getting off or on airliners, rose by 10 percent during the 2017-18 ski season.
That growth comes as the commercial passenger terminal undergoes a $34 million expansion.
That expansion, expected to be complete in November 2019, will add new gates to the terminal and will expand concessions and other services.
Acting as the Eagle County Air Terminal Corp., the nonprofit agency that manages the terminal, the Eagle County Commissioners last week signed a $2.2 million contract to add four passenger bridges to the upgraded facility.
Turner noted that commercial operations continue through the expansion project.
“We went to a great deal of expense and effort for temporary facilities,” Turner said, adding that the temporary facilities are a one-for-one match for both facility size and the current number of boarding gates.
A new, big hangar
The work on the commercial side is only part of the work going on at the airport this year.
The Vail Valley Jet Center, which handles corporate and other general aviation operations at the airport, recently broke ground on a new, 30,000-square-foot hangar west of the commercial terminal. In comparison, the City Market store in Eagle is a little more than 50,000 square feet.
That expansion is part of a five-acre expansion of aircraft.
In an email, Vail Valley Jet Center President and CEO Paul Gordon wrote that the new hangar will be able to accommodate the biggest business jets now flying.
That facility should be complete before the winter of 2019, Gordon wrote.
In addition, Gordon noted that a partnership of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Eagle County and the Jet Center will add a second customs officer this fall. That will allow the facility to accommodate more international flights — primarily on business jets. During the 2017-18 ski season, there were more than 600 international flights that cleared customs at the airport.
Besides work on the south side of the airport, Turner said the aircraft apron on the airport’s north side is being rebuilt soon. The north side is home mostly to smaller aircraft. Many of those planes are operated by locals, but Turner said there’s a growing mix of both local and “itinerant” traffic.
While all this work is expensive, county taxpayers aren’t paying any of those bills. Much airport work is largely funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. Other funding comes from user fees paid by airlines and passenger facility charges — fees charged to every passenger flying into or out of the airport.
The Eagle County Air Terminal Corp. earlier this year sold $29.4 million in bonds that will be repaid through those user fees.
“It’s run like a private business in some regards,” Turner said. “We don’t have somebody to bail us out.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.