The combination of a level-orange terrorism alert and a reduced number of security screeners at Hayden airport this winter means holiday travelers departing from Steamboat Springs are being asked to show up two-and-a-half hours early for their flights.
Yampa Valley Regional Airport Manager Jim Parker said Tuesday that failure to arrive at least 150 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time could result in people missing their flights.
Passengers who don't arrive that early "may get in a security line and not make their flights," Parker said.
Many of the cities served by YVRA receive just one flight a day, so missing a flight could mean staying an extra day in the Yampa Valley.
"I just came out of a security meeting, and because of extremely full airplanes for the next two weeks, we're asking that members of the public who are flying out of the airport arrive no less than two-and-a-half hours prior to their departure time," Parker said. "The reason for this is (the Transportation Safety Administration) is shorthanded this year from last year at this airport. Due to the national security orange alert, the TSA is required to search checked and carry-on luggage more thoroughly and that takes more time."
Parker said the number of TSA employees this winter was reduced by more than a dozen. Between 40 and 43 security workers were on the job last ski season and there are 27 at present, with the possibility of a few more on the way, Parker said.
A spokesman for Alpine Taxi said his company cannot comply with the airport's request.
"We're just simply not going to do it," Alpine Taxi manager Ulrich Salzgeber said. "Our system is just too complex. Our system is set."
Salzgeber said his company already has 600 reservations for people who have booked transportation for Saturday from Steamboat to the airport. Those passengers already have confirmations of their pickup times at their vacation lodging, and some of them have already had the time changed once, he added.
"This fall, we were being asked to deliver departing passengers 90 minutes ahead of their departure time," Salzgeber said. "Then, three weeks ago, they asked us to increase it to two hours. It took four of my reservationists two-and-a-half-days to make the changes. Our reservations have probably tripled since then. If I asked my reservationists to change them again, we'd have people screaming at us."
Parker said the airport has been consistent this year in asking people to arrive two hours early for flights. Some public transportation companies and shuttle operations have been "living with 90 minutes," he added.
Salzgeber's taxi company adds as much as 80 minutes to its customers' trips. Alpine builds 40 minutes into its schedule for the drive to the airport and 40 minutes into the pickup window to allow it to transport two to four parties in one vehicle.
YVRA's first flight of the day is a United Airlines 737 scheduled to leave for Denver at 8:25 a.m. The new request means passengers are asked to arrive by 6 a.m.
Airport staff arrives at 6 a.m. but must walk across the runway from the airport fire and rescue building. Parker said to make up for that brief delay, he has asked TSA personnel, who arrive at 5:15 a.m., to unlock the terminal building at 5:45 a.m. to accommodate passengers.
"I realize that to get there by 6 a.m., people have to get up at 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m. It's tough on people, it really is. I feel for them," Parker said. "But the bottom line is, if they don't arrive two-and-a-half hours early and they miss their flight, it's their fault."
YVRA just opened a new terminal expansion, which increased the area for passengers waiting to go through luggage screening and check-in.
However, Salzgeber, who is a member of the airport commission, said that bringing all of his passengers to the airport two-and-a-half hours ahead of their departure time would lead to a customer-service issue.
"Here's my problem," Salzgeber said. "That airport is not equipped for that many people in the holding room (where passengers wait for the boarding call after going through security)."
Salzgeber expressed frustration that the federal government has cut the number of luggage screeners at the airport.
YVRA is scheduled to launch 14 departures Saturday, ranging from a 50-passenger turboprop to a 183-passenger Boeing 757.
Parker said he has been told that between today and Jan. 6, most of the outbound flights from YVRA already are overbooked.
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