Ski towns to benefit from new gadget

— A new era in aviation is arriving at Colorado's Western Slope, and airports in Northwest Colorado will be at the forefront of the change.

Colorado Aeronautics Director Travis Vallin told an audience of airline and travel professionals gathered in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday that Western Colorado airports soon will have improved radar coverage for approaching aircraft.

Vallin said his agency recently cleared a hurdle in its effort to reach an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration about how to bring improved technology to increasingly busy resort-town airports.

"We'll be able to get more aircraft in the airspaces with fewer diversions, and that translates into increased revenues (for airlines and tourism-based economies) and a better experience for travelers," Vallin said.

The only Colorado airports west of the Front Range that have radar are in Aspen and Eagle County. But that radar equipment is old and has shortcomings, Vallin said.

The lack of radar is not a safety issue, Vallin said, but it limits how closely air traffic controllers can space aircraft approaching mountain airports -- which limits the number of aircraft that can be landed in an efficient manner.

"We always maintain positive control of the aircraft, but we lose a lot of capacity," Vallin said.

Aircraft approaching Yampa Val-ley Regional Airport in Hayden, or airports in Montrose, Telluride, Gunnison and Durango, for example, disappear from Denver radar when they descend below a certain altitude (9,000 feet at YVRA). The result is that more aircraft are forced to circle above the radar threshold, burning expensive fuel. Also, more flights are diverted to other airports during bad weather.

Recent advances in radar technologies could improve the situation.

Vallin, whose agency is a division of the Colorado Department of Transportation, spoke Wednesday during the annual Airline Summit hosted by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. at the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel. He said the Division of Aeronautics recently reached an agreement about how to split the nearly $12 million cost of the first phase of the radar project. That first phase will see the latest radar equipment installed at airports in Rifle, Craig, Steamboat Springs and at YVRA, Northwest Colorado's commercial airport.

A second phase, estimated to cost $30 million, would extend the new radar capability to other airports on the Western Slope.

The FAA will foot $5.1 million in operating costs for Phase 1, and state and local governments will cover $6.8 million for equipment and installation, Vallin said.

Routt County owns YVRA, and Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said Wednesday that although he has been informed about the radar project, he hasn't been involved in any discussions about funding.

Vallin said his agency and the FAA are preparing a memo of understanding. When it's completed, the new radar equipment could be installed and operational within 18 months.

Bill Payne is consulting with the Division of Aeronautics on the technical aspects of the radar equipment. He said the equipment installed in Northwest Colorado would be adaptable to meet the FAA's future goal of using GPS technology to guide aircraft to landings. Initially, the new radar at airports such as Steamboat Springs Airport and YVRA will use ground units to precisely locate the position of aircraft through triangulation. However, the equipment needed to take advantage of the future GPS-based radar systems will be installed at the same time. When airlines are ready to convert their cockpits to satellite-enabled radar, Colorado's smaller Western Slope airports will be ready to reap the benefits.

Andy Wirth, Ski Corp.'s vice president of marketing, said the new radar will offer immediate benefits for Steamboat's ski season jet program.

"We will look at new markets (cities where flights originate), and we will look at new aircraft flying longer hauls," Wirth said. "For example, on mid-week flights, we will explore the ability to be a bit more flexible and match capacity (smaller aircraft) to demand."

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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