Yampa Valley Regional Airport was barren a week ago. There were no lines, and one private plane from Salt Lake City was making touchdowns and takeoffs on a deserted runway.
By the numbers
1/4: inch depth of snow the airport is required to plow
3: number of times the runway was plowed by this time last year
9: cities that serve direct flights into Hayden
11: number of times the runway has been plowed this season
34: number of employees at the restaurant during winter
55: number of times in the four-month winter season the runway was plowed last season
250: inches of snow plowed last year
400: estimated number of winter employees at Yampa Valley Regional Airport
Nuts & Bolts of Opening at Steamboat Ski Area
Before you can make the walk down the steps to the gondola, before you can wait in line in anticipation, before you can board a car to the top of the mountain and before you can enjoy endless refills of snow, crews are working tirelessly to get Steamboat Ski Area ready for Opening Day.
“But then, we go from two flights on Dec. 18 to 17 or 18 overnight,” airport Assistant Manager Dean Smith said.
Once winter flight service takes off, the terminal goes from empty to full, customers at the Three Wire Bar & Grill restaurant wait three deep and planes taxiing back and forth make the runway look like Newton’s cradle with jets.
But just like Steamboat Ski Area, it’s not the weeks or even months leading into ski season that dictate and consume airport employees’ time.
As soon as one busy flight season ends, another begins.
“If we have a project we need to do, we have an idea about it at the end of the ski season,” Smith said.
The airport certainly slows down in the summer, and seasonal employees leave, but that less-hectic period is an important time.
The runway gets crack-sealed to try to eliminate any moisture from getting in and causing damage. Vehicles are serviced, and staff members are updated on any changes to airport regulations.
“But it increases our responsibility, once it’s commercial flight season,” said Tyler Whitmore, the airport’s public safety director and fire chief.
By the beginning of December, all of Whitmore’s seasonal staffers return for a two-day orientation program when regulations are updated and protocol is reviewed again. Beginning Dec. 1, Whitmore’s crew will be on regular work shifts.
Most of his seasonal crew has been with the airport for years and most are ranchers, he said.
Whitmore communicates with air carriers, makes sure the plow crews are safe and coordinates with airlines about their schedules, their aircraft and any gate issues they might have.
“December is big for us,” he said.
For Todd DuBois’ maintenance crew, the job doesn’t stop. When commercial flights slow down, parts have to be ordered and maintenance work on the airport’s three snowplows, two blowers and two 20-foot brooms begins.
Like Whitmore, DuBois has retained a lot of his crew members for years, making the transition periods much easier.
DuBois said the tough part of his job is predicting the first snow and how much might fall. Whereas other departments have their full contingent of staff back on the job by early December, he has to decide when is the right time to call in his seasonal staff, which increases from nine in the summer to 17 in the winter.
“I’ve already plowed eight times this year,” he said last week. “Last year at this point, it was only three.”
The airport’s opening of winter flights presents different challenges than those faced by the ski area. Although both involve increased communication among departments, the airport deals with multiple jurisdictions.
“We probably have a different approach to the season just because of the number of entities we interact with,” airport Manager Dave Ruppel said. “We interact with the airlines, people on the ground, the handlers, TSA, West Routt Fire Department and the local police department among others.”
But once Dec. 19 hits, the airport is ready for an influx of airline traffic and passengers anxious to hit the slopes. Yampa Valley Regional Airport will service direct flights from nine cities this season and more than 1,400 Saturday seats are available during the busiest portions of the winter.
“But then it gets boring,” Smith said. “We go from this huge controlled turmoil back to two flights a day overnight.”