Officials look to improve airport terminal

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— A new, $23 million passenger terminal is not in Yampa Valley Regional Airport's foreseeable future.

Members of the airport advisory board began coming to terms with that last week during a tour of the facilities.

As recently as April, board members toured the airport contemplating fix-up projects that could be undertaken while they pushed toward completion of a new terminal by 2006. However, economic reality sunk in over the summer and on Aug. 14 board members and county officials conducted a similar tour with a different mindset.

Instead of focusing on short-term solutions, airport officials were looking for cost-effective ways to keep an outdated facility functional.

Airport Manager Jim Parker told the group there are two specific challenges the YVRA is likely to be confronted with in the near future. The first is the federal government's mandate that all airports served by commercial airlines provide the means for pre-screening of checked luggage by Dec. 31.

The second is the possibility that the demise of YVRA's plans for a new terminal could change the FAA's stance on a waiver it grants for Boeing 757's parked on the tarmac at the airport.

"When we saw the $23 million price tag, we decided to turn the truck around and go in another direction," Advisory Board President Ulrich Salzgeber said.

This summer doesn't mark the first time airport officials have been confronted with a price tag in excess of $20 million for a new terminal, County Manager Tom Sullivan said. About 18 months ago the advisory board and the county commissioners asked a consulting firm working on a feasibility study of the new terminal to go back and cut millions form the project. By the time they returned with a trimmed down project, escalating construction prices and the need for new airport security measures had bumped the cost right back to where they had started.

And the $23 million doesn't include almost $10 million in expenses for new roads and parking lots that would be necessitated by a new terminal.

Sullivan said the county might be able to pull off the terminal project, but it would use all the federal grant monies needed for other capital projects in the airport's 20-year master plan including mandatory runway overlays. That just wasn't an option, he said.

The consultants concluded that enplanements at YVRA can't support the cost of the new terminal as envisioned.

That leaves the county and the airport advisory board looking for ways to augment inadequate passenger check-in and waiting areas, as well as a congested baggage carousel facility.

Andy Wirth wears two hats as a member of the airport authority and the point man for the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.'s ski season jet program. He said he believes a six-point program identified in April for remedial projects is just as important as it was when the authority believed it could look forward to a new terminal.

"We've isolated some short-term projects that do more than just dent these problems," Wirth said Aug. 14. "We have to get to these things by next ski season. I think the people of the valley would be disappointed if we didn't."

Sullivan agreed that addressing some of the problems at the airport is a must.

"This is a fix that is needed so badly, we can't afford not to do it," he said.

The projects at the top of the authority's list include a ticket counter expansion, and possibly a new, used baggage belt for American Airlines, which flies to Steamboat from Dallas.

Similarly, Continental Airlines, which flies to Steamboat from Houston and Newark, would gain more counter space.

Curbside baggage check-in might benefit from semi-permanent tenting that would allow people to wait in line with some protection from the elements.

Wirth said he'd like to see improved signage directing departing passengers to the proper traffic flow. He's also hoping for a coat of paint to give concrete highway barriers used to segregate traffic flow a less industrial appearance.

Parker said the roof over the center section of the terminal is in serious need of replacement.

County Commissioner Dan Ellison said he believes the authority has a responsibility to regroup and identify new solutions to the region's long-term needs for a functional airport terminal.

"You've got to ask if there are other ways to skin this cat," Ellison said.

Authority member Marty Kolonel said he believes abandonment of a new or significantly expanded terminal is premature.

"What about a $5 million to $10 million compromise?" Kolonel said.

Kolonel observed that the existing passenger terminal is essentially a metal building, and suggested a modest expansion shouldn't have to cost $23 million.

This fall's challenges with checked luggage screening and the safe parking of the American Airlines 757 from Dallas are more immediate.

Parker said the Airline Transportation Safety Board has contracted with Boeing to implement the new systems. YVRA could get a reprieve from the Dec. 31 deadline because the manufacturer of the luggage screeners can't make them fast enough to meet demand.

Ultimately, the limitations of YVRA's facility will catch up with it, Parker predicted. He explained that at most of the nation's larger airports the screening system will be installed directly behind the desk where passengers now check their luggage. That won't work at YVRA, Parker said, because the existing buildings are already as close to the centerline of the runway as they can be; there's no more room behind the luggage check-in counters.

"Boeing is going to come here and they're going to tell us what we have to do and we're going to have to pay for it," Parker said.

The problem with the tail sections of Boeing 757s parked at the gate in Steamboat relates to the anticipated new terminal, Parker said.

As it stands, a 757 parked at the gate at YVRA is tall enough that it extends into a strip of air space reserved as a safety zone on the south side of the runway. The FAA has granted an ongoing waiver to that violation based on the expectation that the construction of a new terminal will move airplane parking areas further from the runway, Parker said.

Now that the new terminal has been pulled back, there's a likelihood that the FAA will take a fresh look at the waiver, Parker said. The only solution he can envision is to create a special parking area for the large jet on the west end of the terminal, in an area where taxi and shuttle drivers currently wait for incoming flights.

Wirth said the daily 757 from Dallas is highly beneficial because it flies at an average occupancy rate of more than 80 percent.

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