Housing crunch hits Eagle County airport | VailDaily.com

Housing crunch hits Eagle County airport

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyAir traffic controller Stewart Montei Jr.'s last day of work at the Eagle County Regional Airport Control Tower was Sunday because he can't afford to live in Eagle County.

GYPSUM, Colorado ” Air traffic controller Stewart Montei Jr. wanted to stay in Eagle County for at least a decade, but he planned to leave Sunday because he couldn’t afford a home.

Montei moved from Springfield, Ohio, into a $700 a month apartment in Gypsum in October.

Other air traffic controllers haven’t been as lucky as Montei. One co-worker pays $1,700 a month in rent and another lives with his wife in Glenwood Springs, Montei said.

“When I was offered the job, they told me that it was expensive here,” said Montei, who been an air traffic controller with the U.S. Air Force for eight years, including a summer at Baghdad International Airport. “How much more expensive didn’t really hit me until I got here.”

Like many employers in Eagle County, the Eagle County Airport has a hard time keeping its employees. The airport hires four full-time air traffic controllers and a fifth one during the ski season when it’s busiest. The chief air traffic controller is the only one who has stayed since the winter of 2006 and 2007, and even he plans to leave soon, said Ovid Seifers, director of the Eagle County Airport.

“This past winter season, only one of the five individuals here were here last season,” said Seifers, adding that there have been periods of stability, but that the high turnover rate has been typical of the last couple years,

Seifers would rather have people who stay on the job for a longer time so he has more confidence in their abilities.

“I wouldn’t call it a safety concern,” Seifers said.

Paul Gordon, president of the Vail Valley Jet Center, cannot recall a crash or accident due to inexperienced air traffic controllers at the airport.

“We haven’t seen anything like that in Eagle, and I never want to see anything like that,” he said.

Air traffic controllers have a stressful job and must have excellent memories, Gordon said. They decide when planes take off and when they land. They make sure planes avoid collisions and they keep fuel costs down when they reduce delays. Fewer delays also mean happier travelers and repeat business.

“They’re really at the heart of everything in terms of keeping the airport moving,” Gordon said.

“We get a lot more benefit when we have seasoned, experienced people in the tower,” he said.

Affordable housing, of which the county has provided more, and higher pay would help keep air traffic controllers, Gordon said.

Few air traffic controllers stay more than a couple seasons due to the high cost of living, Seifers said.

They have moved to places such as Grand Junction, Manhattan, Kan., and the Front Range.

Unlike many airports, the airport gets its air traffic controllers from a “contract tower program” run by Serco Inc. and administered by the Federal Aviation Administration, which pays its air traffic controllers based on average median income.

But the Federal Aviation Administration’s pay scale does not account for the high cost of housing in Eagle and Pitkin counties, Seifers said. Aspen/Pitkin County Airport also has a high turnover rate, the Aspen Daily News reported.

Air traffic controllers have more buying power in places such as the Front Range, Seifers said.

“The average median income in the Front Range is far higher than the average median income in Eagle County,” Seifers said.

And many of the air traffic controllers use the Eagle County Airport as a stepping stone hoping to get hired directly with the Federal Aviation Administration, which pays more than the contract tower system.

Representatives of Serco Inc. did not return telephone messages requesting comment.

Even after making $28 an hour, Montei’s bank refused to approve him for more than a $325,000 loan to buy a home, he said.

Montei also has been discouraged when he has read about the waiting list for an affordable housing project called West End in Edwards, he said. He doesn’t want to wait for a home, he said.

Montei moved here because he likes the mountains. He especially enjoyed playing pickup hockey games with locals, he said. He plans to move to Lebanon, N.H.

“I can’t afford to live here,” Montei said.

Seifers said air traffic controllers get $400 a month for housing, but that just gets them to Eagle County.

“It doesn’t keep them here,” Seifers said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.

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