Steamboat Springs New federally mandated security screening measures are the reason Yampa Valley Regional Airport officials are thinking about renting a really big tent.
The newest addition to the airport 25 miles west of Steamboat Springs could be a 4,000-square-foot tent, where outbound passengers would queue up to begin the baggage check-in process.
Airport Manager Jim Parker confirmed this week he is talking to rental companies in Denver about acquiring a tent to shelter travelers from the winter weather while they wait in line to have their check-in luggage "swabbed" for traces of explosives.
"We want to have it in place before Dec. 12 when the first ski season jet flights arrive," Parker said. "The tent solution is not permanent. But you can put floors in them, and they can be attractive."
Andy Wirth, who supervises ski season jet programs for the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., said he believes a tent, done right, can "absolutely" provide a reasonable shelter for waiting passengers. But he's also sensitive to the final impression the facility will make on big-ticket vacationers on their way home.
The need for additional passenger waiting space at the airport was brought about by new federal regulations invoked by the Transportation Safety Administration in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
They require that all carry-on luggage be screened as of Jan. 1, 2003. Many of the nation's largest airports will have expensive X-ray machines, but that won't be the case at all commercial airports.
Parker explained that the government contracted with Boeing Corp. to survey the nation's airports and implement the appropriate screening solution.
In addition to being expensive, the X-ray machines are in short supply.
The solution Boeing prescribed for YVRA involves a station where federal employees will wipe or swab the zipper and handle of all pieces of luggage with a cloth patch.
The cloth is then placed in a device that can quickly discern if there is any trace of explosives on the luggage.
The equipment is called an "explosives trace detection" device.
"Each bag only takes about five seconds," Parker said. "But if an alarm sounds, that calls for a dump search (of the offending luggage)."
Installing the swabbing stations (YVRA could have as many as six) cannot take place behind the existing baggage counters because the terminal is already very close to FAA limits for proximity to the centerline of the runway.
That means they will be installed in the already-crowded terminal space where outbound passengers currently get in line to check their bags.
Each machine is 42 inches wide and 8 feet long. Parker estimates they will take up at least half of the space in front of the ticket counters.
"Historically, that lobby has been full of people" during a busy day during ski season he said. "Now the line will be outside."
Wirth, who is also a member of the YVRA advisory board, went as far as contacting officials at DIA to learn more about the permanent tenting that covers the main terminal at Denver's airport.
When he learned the material itself costs $165 per square foot, he knew that wasn't an option.
"You could frame a basic building for that cost," Wirth observed. Still, he's concerned a typical canvas tent covered with vinyl won't be able to stand up to four months of winter weather for the next two to three years.
Parker said airline industry groups have appealed the new screening requirements to Congress, but no decision has been rendered.
He said he has been given no timetable for when the swabbing machines will be installed at YVRA, but he doesn't feel like he can gamble by delaying procurement of the tent.
"If we tried to put the tent in during ski season, it would be very difficult," he said.
Parker said it's not unheard of for innocent substances to trigger an alarm in the explosives trace detection device.
For example, he said, some forms of heart medicine contain nitroglycerine in minute quantities.
The airport manager is just grateful the ETDs weren't in place for Colorado's big-game hunting seasons this fall.
He figures it's not unlikely that hunters would inadvertently transfer traces of gunpowder to the handles of their duffel bags.