Is international terminal a possibility at Eagle County airport? | AspenTimes.com

Is international terminal a possibility at Eagle County airport?

Lauren Glendenning
Vail correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

Vail Daily fileThe Eagle County Regional Airport could someday host international commercial flights. A study is under way now to determine if the airport could sustain an international terminal.

EAGLE COUNTY, Colo. – The Eagle County Regional Airport could someday have the word “international” in its title, as long as a study due to be released this fall shows that an international terminal in Gypsum is economically sustainable.

Talks about adding an international terminal to the Eagle County Regional Airport began in about 2007, but cost-prohibitive estimates for adding such a terminal put the idea on the back burner for a while, said the airport’s terminal manager, Chris Anderson.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol require specific designs and capabilities at international terminals – upgrades that would have cost a fortune three or four years ago but seem more within reach now, said County Commissioner Peter Runyon.

“That need has really been there for quite a while,” Runyon said. “It looks like the stars are aligned and we might actually be able to get it built.”

Eagle County and the Vail Valley Jet Center hired consultants to create a business plan outlining which commercial-sized international aircraft could come into the Eagle County airport and from which markets.

Paul Gordon, president of the Vail Valley Jet Center, said the county and the Jet Center have been working with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol throughout the past year on an international terminal facilities plan.

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“Approval of those plans on a federal level could take more than a year,” Gordon said.

The more comprehensive business plan should be ready this fall, which should reveal whether the concept of an international terminal has traction or not, Gordon said.

“Vail is definitely growing as an international destination, and we want to do all we can to promote our airport and local economy with additional international service,” Gordon said.

There’s a smaller facility at the Vail Valley Jet Center that has been accepting international, private planes since 2003.

Gordon said the local U.S. Customs agent, Ray Rathsburg, has helped the Jet Center accept more international flights over the year. There were about 60 international private flights in 2004, and last year, the Jet Center had 379 international general aviation flights, Gordon said.

There has been some traction for the idea since the announcement that the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships will be held in Vail and Beaver Creek, although everyone involved agrees that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

“2015 is not the driver,” Runyon said. “Yeah, the World Championships are nice, but that’s a 10-day event.”

Vail Resorts Marketing Director Adam Sutner said the ski company fully supports the idea of an international terminal.

“It would be fully in line with our strategic growth objectives, this season and beyond, where we look to increase our mix of destination visitors and, in particular, international visitors,” Sutner said. “This is especially true and important if you look at the road to our 50th anniversary in two years’ time and the 2015 FIS World Championships after that.”

Sutner said the best way to accomplish the construction of an international terminal is to have a collaboration between Vail Resorts, the stakeholder communities, Eagle County and the airport – discussions that have already begun in advance of the report this fall that should reveal the feasibility of the terminal.

Gordon said since the announcement of the World Championships, Eagle County and the Vail Valley Jet Center have met with Vail Resorts, the town of Vail, the Vail Valley Foundation and the EGE Air Alliance to discuss what the facility could mean for the community.

The terminal would need to meet various U.S. Customs criteria in terms of its design, and would require 5 to 6 Customs agents on staff, Anderson said. The ongoing costs associated with maintaining the terminal, including staffing it, are still being investigated, he said.

In order for U.S. Customs to properly evaluate the request to build an international terminal, the request has to identify specific and or anticipated operational and functional information such as number of and frequency of flights, number of gates (current and planned), originating countries, schedule implementation, passenger load, number of passengers per hour (on opening day), projected opening date, projected timeline, and feasibility study information.

Kent Myers, of the EGE Air Alliance and president of Airplanners, an Avon-based firm specializing in the management of air programs that service small communities, said the international terminal would not be operating like the main terminal at the airport.

“On a Saturday, you’re not going to see 12 flights from 9 different destination markets like you see at the existing terminal,” Myers said.

Myers said logical points of entry from international markets include Toronto and Mexico City, but there are challenges with bringing in nonstops from Europe, for example.

Transatlantic flights are typically done on 767’s, and while 767’s can land and take off at the Eagle County Airport, unloading the luggage is where the challenge would come into play.

Unloading and loading luggage on a 767 requires a big lift that lifts the luggage container into the belly of the plane. That one piece of equipment costs $200,000, Myers said.

“Those are the kinds of challenges that the operation has,” he said.

A 757, however, could come in from Mexico City or Toronto just fine and wouldn’t require that equipment.

Regardless of what might stand in the way, the local movers and shakers behind the international terminal idea are doing everything they can to make it work.

“For us to be able to say we have an international airport – that’s a big deal,” Myers said.

lglendenning@vaildaily.com