Glitches, crowds keep airport busy

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— A robust start to winter is making a busy season at Yampa Valley Regional Airport even busier.

Although airport staff and passengers still are coping with an overcrowded terminal, operations -- for the most part -- are running smoothly, officials said.

"My sense is, the snow we've had has really upped the ante," said Dave Ruppel, who is experiencing his first winter season as airport manager.

Bookings have been so good that airlines have added extra flights from Monday through Jan. 3. Overall, the airport expects almost 15,000 incoming passengers in the next two weeks, Ruppel said.

That means a lot of people in the baggage, ticketing, security and waiting areas at the same time.

"We have to be out there helping people get where they need to go," he said. "We've been doing a lot of smiling."

Airport officials had planned to start work on a 23,000-square-foot expansion of the terminal during the summer. That project, which will expand passenger-holding areas and move concessions to the terminal's main level, was postponed until summer 2006 because of a delay in Federal Aviation Administration grants.

The waiting area for departing passengers has a capacity of about 580 people, but more than twice that number of outgoing passengers may file through at peak times on Saturdays.

The line of people waiting to go through security is extending into ticketing lines, Ruppel said.

The "Phase 2" expansion also will include a new ticketing lobby with more counter space and will add another passenger screening aisle to the existing two aisles.

"That's going to be a big help," Ruppel said. "Just the flow of everything is going to be better."

This month, construction workers completed realignment of an access road and expanded and paved vehicle parking lots, though some sidewalk work remains. The improvements replaced the honor system for parking fees with an electronic gate. Drivers can pay with cash or credit at an automated station in the terminal or with a credit card at the gate.

The routing and parking system has been somewhat a challenge; officials are tweaking signs to help motorists and working out glitches in the parking gate, Ruppel said.

The road and parking-lot work and upcoming terminal expansion are part of a four-year three-phase improvement project. Phase 3 work, expected in 2007, will expand the baggage claim area.

Routt County Manager Tom Sullivan said he was pleased with the work Ruppel and Ann Copeland, manager of terminal and land site operations, have done to prepare for the season.

"I'm confident airport staff has really done what they can to make it a pleasant experience," Sullivan said.

Passengers can help ensure a smooth experience by arriving at least two hours before their flights -- they shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of the time boarding will because it's a small airport, Ruppel said.

Motorists dropping off passengers should use the short-term parking lot where parking is free for the first hour.

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