New regulations imposed on Yampa Valley Regional Airport by the Federal Aviation Administration last month could mean more flights will be unable to land in bad weather.
That could be a problem, at least for the first part of ski season.
The new regulations, which are not specific to YVRA, affect pilots making instrument approaches into the airport. They mean that to land, the aircraft must break out of the cloud cover at higher altitude, and when it does break out, it must have greater ground visibility.
Already, the new regulations have caused some flights to be canceled at YVRA, Airport Manager Jim Parker said. The snowstorm that produced 20 inches of snow at the Steamboat Ski Area last weekend also resulted in adverse landing conditions at the airport. Four United Express flights that might have been cleared to land under the old instrument approach minimums were canceled, Parker said.
The airport manager said the change in approach minimums should not lead the public to conclude that the airport was previously unsafe or is now unsafe.
"This airport is not unsafe," Parker said. "It's just that the FAA's new criteria modified our approach."
The timing of the new regulations presents a challenge for airport and resort officials -- the beginning of ski season jet flights is just more than a month away -- Dec. 12.
"It's not the best of news, but we're working to change it," County Manager Tom Sullivan said. Sullivan added that the new minimums will affect other ski town airports in Colorado and that Routt County was simply first on the FAA's notification list.
Sullivan said Friday that he and Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. executives, who manage the business side of the ski season flights, had an encouraging conversation with an FAA official in Seattle that could result in relaxing the new minimums within 60 days. Terry Parnell, manager of the FAA's Office of Flight Procedures for the Western and Mountain region, told him there was a good chance that modifying the airlines' landing procedures could allow relaxation of the new minimums, Sullivan said. Modifying the requirements typically would take 10 months, but Parnell told him he understood YVRA's situation and would attempt to push the changes through within 60 days.
Parnell could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Ironically, the more stringent minimums at YVRA are an unintended consequence of a request from local officials. More than a year ago, the county and ski area airline experts were in conversations with Delta Airlines about flying a 50-passenger regional jet into Steamboat during ski season. Delta said the small jet, which approaches the runway at higher rates of speed than larger commercial jets, could not operate under YVRA's older, less stringent minimums. YVRA contacted the FAA to find out whether Delta could meet the minimums by making changes to its approach procedures. As a result of the FAA scrutinizing YVRA's visibility minimums, the agency imposed its newer regulations on the airport.
Parker said the visibility minimums are driven by the possibility that a pilot nearing the airport on instrument flight rules could miss the approach and need to "go around" for another landing approach. In that situation, surrounding terrain dictates how much visibility the pilot needs safely to exit the runway area and set up for another approach.
There isn't just one set of visibility minimums for the airport, Parker said. The ideal instrument approach is from the west, which allows pilots to use the airport's ILS system. Previously, the minimums for that runway included a cloud ceiling of no less than 250 feet above the runway and ground visibility of three-quarters of a mile. The new minimums call for a cloud ceiling no lower than 400 feet and ground visibility of 1 1/2 miles. Aircraft landing from the east because of westerly winds cannot use the ILS and require greater minimums, Parker said. That was the case last weekend when United Express was forced to cancel some flights, he added.
The holidays are a time when ski areas hope for snow, but Parker said he would be wishing for fair weather in late December to keep the busy airport running smoothly.
"If it wants to snow at night, that's fine," Parker said. "But we want crystal blue skies all day."