Funding for airport radar falls through

Veronica Whitney

Eagle County Administrator Jack Ingstad said the decision came as a surprise. The transportation bill that initially included funds for the $8 million radar system at the county airport was cleared by the U.S. Senate, but was changed last week by the Appropriations conference committee with members from both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Ingstad said the county still is waiting for more clarification on the reasons the airport was excluded from the bill.

“We can’t afford the initial funding nor the on-going maintenance of the radar [without federal help],” county Commissioner Tom Stone said.

The new radar would increase safety and capacity at the airport,

said Mark Davidson, director of aviation at the county airport.

“The need for the radar system is becoming increasingly critical as the airport’s air traffic grows,” he said.

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Eagle County Regional Airport had a total of 42,893 takeoffs and landings in 2002, an 8 percent increase over 2001, Davidson said.

Ingstad said that during the winter, hundreds of aircraft are not permitted into the airport because of bad weather. He said that negatively impacts airport operations, as well as the local economy.

An economic study says the county lost $63 million in 2001 because of the lack of a good radar system, Ingstad said.

“The airport sometimes has to turn away 200 aircraft on bad weather days. A radar installation will permit two to three times more air traffic,” Ingstad said. “Another reason for the need of a new radar is the recent addition of summer daily flights from June through August from Dallas to Eagle County.”

Because of the county’s unique altitude and weather conditions, a radar installation will permit much more dependable and efficient operations, not only at the county airport but at the Vail Valley Jet Center, which on some peak days receives more than 200 flights.

“When planes fly between 6,500 to 10,000 feet, there is what we call “black hole’,” Ingstad said. “Controllers at the airport can’t see the planes in bad weather and they can’t see them on the radar.”

More flights, no radar

Many airports with adequate radar systems in the country don’t have the traffic Eagle County Regional Airport has, Ingstad said.

“There are six radar-served locations within the FAA Northwest Mountain region that have fewer enplaned passengers than Eagle. We’re busier than Grand Junction, than Missoula (Mont.) and they all have radar. There’s an inequity of being excluded from FAA consideration due to seasonality.”

Though the county airport’s seasonal traffic ranks it number eight in the Federal Aviation Administration Northwest Mountain Region, the current evaluation criteria looks at annual operations, not seasonal, and excludes Eagle County from consideration.

“To fix these inequities, the county has been working for years with our congressional delegation and believed that this year we were going to get the radar approved with Senator (Ben) Campbell’s help,” Ingstad said.

“The county has put a ton of its own money into this airport; we’ve built a $20 million passenger terminal and we’re building a new control tower. It shouldn’t be too much to ask congress to provide funds for the radar.”

The commissioners will be meeting with U.S. Senators to try to get it back on the Transportation and Appropriation bill for next year, Ingstad said.

“We need this issue covered. I heard that traffic controllers in Denver would like to have this hole filled up,” said Michael Gallagher, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners. “(Sen. Ben) Campbell’s staff has told us that the issue isn’t dead, but nobody can find the radar for our airport in writing.”

Commissioner Arn Menconi said the community also needs to get behind this request.

“The business sector should voice its concern that this wasn’t added to the budget as anticipated,” Menconi said. “We require citizen help to make clear why the community needs this radar.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at

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