Steamboat Springs Ground crews and passenger service employees at Yampa Valley Regional Airport are refining their strategies during the holidays as they prepare for one of the biggest arrival days of the year Saturday.
“We had a few growing pains (Dec. 19) — there always are some on the first big weekend of the season,” Airport Manager Dave Ruppel told the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. “But we had good feedback on passenger service and the Red Coats — having somebody come up to (travelers) and asking if they need help.”
The Red Coats are county employees funded by airline fees who are devoted to adding a personal touch for passengers arriving and departing at the airport west of Steamboat Springs. The Red Coats are augmented on busy days like this Saturday by ambassadors from the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.
The airport saw 1,673 arriving passengers Saturday, Dec. 19, as inbound flights pulled up to the gate 98 percent full on average. This Saturday promises to be at least as busy at the county-owned airport with additional flights scheduled to meet holiday demand.
A busy day at the airport may not be enough to push tourism levels in Steamboat to last year’s levels. The Lodging Barometer published by the Chamber anticipates 12,000 visitors will spend the night here on Saturday compared to about 15,000 on the corresponding Saturday in 2008.
Mountain condominiums are expected to be only 70 percent full, compared to 91 percent full last year at this time.
Tourism levels are expected to grow by Wednesday, when 13,700 people are expected to stay in area lodging properties.
The Chamber’s new effective occupancy report, which also measures the number of people visiting and staying in private homes, for example, suggests the numbers of people in town could approach the level of the 2008 holiday season.
Ruppel told the commissioners that Saturdays are typically the busiest day of the week at the airport because of second daily flights from Dallas and Minneapolis (plus Houston later in the winter) and once-a-week flights from New York/LaGuardia and Newark.
Many of the arriving flights are concentrated around midday, with between 20 and 30 minutes between flights. That leads to congestion in the terminal, particularly at the baggage carousel, Ruppel said.
“We are very tight this year on our midday arrivals,” Ruppel told the commissioners. “It’s closer to 20 minutes on some flights. We really have the minimum amount of time between arrivals when we get flights that are late out and in early.”
The airport has five places to park full-sized jets, and Ruppel said Assistant Airport Manager Dean Smith is actively talking to pilots on the ground this winter to remind them they need to turn their departure times over to make room for arriving flights.
“Baggage problems are our biggest issue right now,” Ruppel said.
Airport personnel will focus this week, Ruppel said, on ensuring that luggage coming off arriving flights is transported to the baggage carousel in the sequence in which flights arrive. The intent, he said, is to alleviate passengers crowding the carousel only to learn that their luggage has yet to be unloaded from the plane.
The Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. reported Wednesday that arriving flights would have a combined load factor of 81 percent with 976 passengers onboard.
Both the United Airlines and American Airlines flights from Chicago arrived early Wednesday. However, by late afternoon a winter storm with mixed precipitation was affecting operations at O’Hare International Airport. Flights waiting at other airports to take off for Chicago were being held for more than two hours because of snow and ice in Chicago, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The National Weather Service was predicting the mix of snow and ice would continue to trouble Chicago through today with the forecast for the heavy travel day Saturday calling for a 50 percent chance of snow.