YVRA begins screening carry-ons

Outbound passengers now wait in overflow tent outside check-in door

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— Long lines and congestion at Yampa Valley Regional Airport Friday provided a glimpse of what's to come.

According to new federal regulations, all carry-on luggage must be rigorously screened as of Jan. 1.

YVRA started its trial run more than a week ago to create a system that is as efficient and timely as possible with the deadline approaching, said Bob Saltzman, Transportation Safety Administration head at YVRA.

In cities such as Denver, Chicago or Dallas, where many of Steamboat Springs' vacationers travel through, the airports will use, or have started using, expensive X-ray machines.

In smaller commercial airports like the one servicing the Yampa Valley, federal TSA workers will check every bag by hand because of the low supply of the machines coupled with their cost.

The system is problematic at YVRA because the swabbing stations where federal employees are checking for traces of explosives could not be installed behind the existing baggage counters.

The terminal is already nearing Federal Aviation Administration limits for proximity to the centerline of the runway.

Instead, the "explosive trace detection" devices were placed where outbound passengers originally got in line to check their bags.

It was a tight fit in the YVRA terminal Friday. A white overflow tent has been installed outside the ticket check-in door to allow outbound passengers a place to stand where they might be protected from the elements as they await their turns to have their bags screened.

Partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the low to mid-30s made the outside wait bearable Friday afternoon. There was hot air blowing into the heavy tent in case temperatures dipped, which they are expected to do into next week.

Saltzman said the situation at YVRA is not ideal for anyone.

"You have to allow passengers room to function without growing impatient," Saltzman said.

"The airlines are helping us out by allowing people to come in groups of five so we don't overload the terminal with overanxious passengers. It's kind of a form of crowd control. For the most part, everyone has been pretty compliant with it."

Passenger Kathleen Siepel said while waiting in lines isn't "tragic," there are things YVRA could do to assist passengers, particularly those unfamiliar with the airport's layout.

"I would recommend they give people proper instructions when landing and have signs outside telling people where to go," she said. "It was a mess. It isn't tragic, but if they want people to come back, they need to be more intelligent about the way they run things, and I know these are intelligent people."

Siepel added that she was at the airport two hours early as instructed, and from now until the end of March, particularly, American Airlines lead agent Jill Murphy advised passengers to adhere to those instructions.

"Any transition has its rocks and bumps," Murphy said.

Clearly, the Yampa Valley isn't upset about the increase in visitors. This weekend alone, roughly 13,700 vacationers will be in Steamboat to enjoy the continuing holiday season.

Jean Miller and her young son Brady landed at YVRA Thursday and gathered around the crowded baggage claim belts. Miller is from the Minneapolis area and didn't enjoy a white Christmas because there are only trace amounts of snow in Minnesota.

She's eagerly anticipating her stay in Steamboat, along with her son, who has never seen mountains before.

Miller wasn't aware of the new security machines installed at YVRA, but she said waiting in lines for her return flight to the Twin Cities wouldn't impact her decision whether to come back.

Murphy expects next week to be one of the busiest -- if not the busiest -- of the ski season.

For some, like the Edwards family from Marble Falls, Texas, the wait isn't long.

The Edwardses, all six of them, waited only 30 minutes to get their bags checked Friday afternoon. They were on a smaller Continental flight to Houston and scooted to the front of the line.

Jerry and Carolyn Edwards love Steamboat's summers and winters, which is why they bought a condo here for their entire family to enjoy. They said they have seen many smaller airports that serve passengers better than YVRA, but the airport isn't a deciding factor in picking a vacation spot in Colorado.

They aren't so sure that will hold true for everyone.

"There might be some first-timers that don't come back," Jerry Edwards said. "I thought there was just a lack of communication. Everything could be helped by posting signs for some form of facilitation for people unfamiliar with the airport."

Saltzman, and several vacationers, said it's clear the Yampa Valley needs a new airport terminal to handle the influx of visitors during the ski season, but a new terminal has been estimated to cost around $23 million.

Obviously, there is no way to get around the new security measures, which are for the safety of both passengers and airline employees in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Saltzman, a 13-year veteran in the aviation business, said no one was prepared for the steps that would have to be taken.

"It's nothing against this airport," he said. "You can't anticipate things like this."

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