‘It’s organized chaos’ – Eagle County Airport
GYPSUM ” If it’s Saturday, it must be a madhouse at the Eagle County Airport.
Ski season Saturdays are the busiest days by far at the airport. Last Saturday, thousands of people went through the commercial terminal.
Most, about 85 percent, were headed for vacations in Vail and Beaver Creek. Most of the rest were on their way Aspen and other Pitkin County resorts.
“Last Saturday the amount of passengers was insane,” said Tammi Griffin, manager of the bar and restaurant in the terminal. “We had six or seven thousand passengers through here, and 2,000 people in this terminal is just nuts.”
But that’s the way Griffin likes it. “I would like it to be like Saturday every day,” she said. “You definitely don’t have time to be bored.”
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There are more and more days like Saturday at the airport now. Last year, more passengers came through the airport in Gypsum than flew into Aspen, making Eagle County the third-busiest airport in the state, behind the ones in Denver and Colorado Springs.
“It’s really changed since I’ve worked here,” said Katie Melanie, who has managed one of the two gift shops in the passenger terminal since 1997. “But year-round business is still spotty.”
Most people who work at the airport still work other jobs to make ends meet. But summers at the airport are becoming busier every year.
Last summer ” June through August ” was the best one yet, when more than 30,000 passengers flew into the airport. That’s still far less than winter, but it was enough to run the restaurant on a limited schedule from about 4:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“It worked well for the customers,” bartender Geri Klahr said.
The quiet times
While days like Saturday are welcome, there are still plenty of quiet days at the airport. Those might be harder than busy days.
“May and October are our slowest month,” said Kathy Doss, who works at the National/Alamo rental car desk at the airport. “The cars are really clean then.”
Charity Doyal works with Doss. She said more flights in the slow months would be welcome.
Flights do come in during the slow months. United Express has between three and four flights a day to and from Denver every day of the year. Those flights are usually full, or close to it, said Airport Administration Manager Chris Anderson.
But those planes, twin-engine turbo-props, only carry 32 passengers. Four full flights bring in fewer people than one fully-loaded Boeing 757, the twin-engine jets that bring in the vast majority of winter and summer passengers.
“We have multiple flights of those so people can connect with flights through the day,” Anderson said.
The United Express flights keep some ramp workers on the job, but when those are the only planes coming into the airport, there’s plenty of elbow room in the terminal.
Is it big enough?
That elbow room vanishes in the winter.
“Saturdays? It’s organized chaos,” said John Adair of the Transportation Security Agency, the federal agency that runs security at all the nation’s airports.
Adair said even on busy days, it rarely, if ever, takes more than 20 minutes to get through security.
“But the lines get really long,” he said. “There’s nowhere to put them.”
To handle the crowds, some who work at the airport think a bigger terminal’s needed.
“They should have doubled it when they added on a few years ago,” Griffin said. “The numbers just go up and up. The terminal, the parking lots, all need to be bigger.”
Anderson said airport and airline officials are working on long-term plans for the airport now. Those plans include new technology this year. One part of the technology puzzle is a new radar system. That long-sought item should be in place by the end of this year.
When it’s working, the radar will allow more planes to use the airport in foul weather. Now when the clouds come in, the airport can be limited to as few as six takeoffs and landings every hour.
Foul weather operations will also be aided by a new instrument landing system, which should be operational later this year.
More marketing’s needed
But building the airport’s capacity won’t matter much without more marketing, Klahr said.
While the Fly Vail Summer marketing program spent more than $1.4 million last year, Klahr questioned the program’s effectiveness.
“I talk to customers from around the world,” she said. “People don’t realize what this valley has to offer. There may be more to do in the summer than there is in the winter.”
While she believes the airport needs more space, Klahr’s also looking forward to the day when there’s enough year-round work for the winter crews.
“People wouldn’t need second jobs, and employers could offer benefits,” she said. “But customers say it would be great to have more shops. It needs to expand. If the flights back up, we can get four or five thousand people here all at once.”
Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or email@example.com.
Vail Daily, Vail Colorado