About this time next year, one of the larger earth-moving projects in the history of Eagle County is expected to begin.
To extend Eagle County Regional Airport’s 8,000-foot runway by 1,000 feet on the east end, dirt-movers will haul off 2.7 million cubic yards of soil – or about three times as much dirt was dumped at the Two Rivers housing project at Dotsero.
This massive dirt-moving will have an outcome of small margins. The lengthened runway will allow somewhat heavier airplanes to take off and land. It will allow new types of aircraft, including a new generation of 40- to 50-passenger jets, and connect the airport to secondary markets, such as Tulsa and Colorado Springs. Pilots will see a marginal increase in safety.
It will also allow planes just a little to gain loft on hot summer days to gain loft. With those additional seconds they can carry a little more weight – i.e. a few more passengers. A few more passengers means a little more revenue. A little more potential revenue means a little more interest from airlines.
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Those few more seconds also means airplanes can carry a little more fuel. A little more fuel means a little more range – maybe enough to get to Newark, N.J., instead of just Chicago. A few more people from Dallas, Chicago, and New York means a few more hotel guests in Beaver Creek in June, a few more homes sold at Cordillera.
In such increments an economic giant may yet still be created. The airport already is a powerful player in the valley’s economy, primarily as a way for the wealthiest of skiers to get to the slopes. About 40 percent of the out-of-state overnight visitors at Vail and Beaver Creek ski areas arrive at the airport. About 20 percent of passengers are on their way to Aspen, a figure expected to rise.
‘The ultimate vision’
But public officials see the airport becoming even busier. Just as Interstate 70 never entirely shuts down, they also see Eagle County’s airport becoming a transportation hub where the distinction between seasons blurs.
“I think the ultimate vision is we want as much year-round commercial service to as many destinations as possible,” says Eagle County Commissioner Tom Stone. “We see the airport being important to the economy and vitality of our area and, as far as that goes, the whole region.”
Stone and other politicians see the airport as one large answer to the highway congestion from Denver, even as it adds to the congestion locally.
“Eagle County is perfectly poised to take advantage of the future of the commercial airline industry,” Stone says. “Airlines are finding it more cost-effective to move away from the hub-and-spoke method of dealing with passengers to more of a point-to-point system.”
The federal government is the main financier of airport. While the federal government has been scaling back highway funds, it is giving more money to airports. The federal government now covers about 95 percent of the of costs of airport construction.
That means the federal government will pay at least $19 million and Eagle County $1 million to lengthen the airport’s runway.
Officials hasten to add that federal funding is not yet certain. Decisions for next year won’t be made until October. But the Federal Aviation Administration has signed off on the project, leading Ovid Seifer, airport manager, to say that the funding is “highly, highly probable, but you can’t say it’s 100 percent certain.”
Also somewhat uncertain are two other key projects, similarly dependent upon federal money, which proponents say will make the airport a true transportation and economic hub.
First is a radar. Estimated to cost $4.8 million, it likely would be placed near tree line on Red Table Mountain, located to the south of the airport. This radar will effectively increase the frequency of take-offs and landings.
The radar will have value mostly during ski season, when bad weather and large traffic volumes are most frequent.
Currently, traffic into Eagle County region is monitored by air-traffic controllers studying radar readings at a facility near Longmont. Those existing readings only show airlines at 10,000 feet above sea level and higher. Below that, air traffic controllers have no way of knowing what’s going on, which causes them to allow fewer planes.
The value of the radar will be greatest when clouds are hanging low, obscuring vision. Seifer compares it to driving on a highway in a car when it is foggy. Radar will allow planes to bunch up more closely.
But when Congress will pay for the radar is uncertain. Stone said he sees retiring Colorado Sen. Ben Campbell as key to getting the money sooner because Campbell is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The second expensive piece of equipment, an instrument landing system has already been funded at a cost of $2 million. It will allow pilots to postpone decisions on whether they can land.
Currently, pilots must be able to see runway lights while still far away from the airport. In poor visibility, that causes many missed approaches, causing the planes to swing around to Kremmling to try again. With the flight instrumentation, they can wait until they are within 600 and 1,000 feet above the ground before deciding whether they can see the runway.
In effect, this equipment in concert with radar will allow more planes to fly in and out of the airport, particularly during poor weather.
Without these electronic aids, the airport Ð during good weather Ð can already handle up to 300 take-off and landings per day, as was demonstrated one day during Presidents Weekend. More than two-thirds of jets flying in and out of the airport on busy days are private.
But during bad weather, absence of these electronic devices means that the airport must slow down, as it did on Jan. 3, which otherwise would have been among the airport’s busiest day of the season.
Ski company wants help
These investments by the federal government assume growth, something absent at the airport for about seven years.
After Vail Resorts began posting guarantees of revenues to airlines in 1989, commercial traffic quickly grew at Eagle County Regional Airport, peaking during the winter of 1996-97. Since then, however, volume has declined, dropping off even more sharply after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which both deepened economic recession and caused broad distrust of plane travel.
In consequence, flights were curtailed. But passenger counts declined even more. Twenty-two percent fewer seats were offered on planes arriving from out of state during the winter of ’02-’03 as compared to the winter of ’96-’97. Passengers declined 14 percent.
This past ski season, available seats remained 14 percent down from the peak year, and there were 9 percent fewer passengers.
Furthermore, the principal agent of commercial traffic, Vail Resorts, is now suggesting that others should share the financial risk for ensuring direct flights. Chris Jarnot, vice president for marketing and sales at Vail Resorts, says slackened airline travel in the wake of Sept. 11 has left airlines more skeptical of marginal flights. In turn, they want revenue guarantees.
Vail Resorts has, with the exception of summer flights, been the sole provider of those guarantees since steady commercial service began in 1989. It now provides guarantees for flights from eight markets, mostly on the East Coast.
“If the community wants to have service into Eagle County grow again, it needs to expect to put its money where its mouth is, and plan for guarantee contracts with airlines to grow service,” Jarnot says.
The greatest weakness of the existing winter airline flights Ð a reflection of ski industry patterns across North America Ð is the shallowness of business during January and early February.
“The vast majority of what we pay out is a result of a drop in traffic in January and the first two weeks of February, meaning that if I can fill those seats during the first six weeks of each year, I can save a lot of money,” says Jarnot.
Vail could also save money if the airport starts living up to its name as a “regional’ facility. Notably, tourists going to Summit County use the airport very little. A survey conducted last winter suggests less than 3 percent of those flying into the airport are headed to Summit County.
“I think there’s a big opportunity there,” says Jarnot.
Why the ski company has not been able to direct more of the visitors going to its Keystone and Breckenridge resorts is unclear. In Summit County, Eagle County airport is seen as being as far away as Denver International, where airfares are normally less expensive.
Jarnot says getting Summit County to use the airport will take a fundamental shift in residents’ and visitors’ thinking, but it’s part of convincing airlines they’ll make money flying more planes into Eagle County.
“It took about five years before people in Eagle County started thinking of driving west to get on a plane, instead of east,” he says. “We haven’t even started trying to get the locals of Summit County to think like that, let alone the guests. But if we can do that, we can reduce our costs of guarantees, and attain the critical mass to establish more service out there.”