Steamboat Springs — Routt County’s two airports continue to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the local and state economies each year, and together they support more than 3,100 jobs.
But like several other airports on the Western Slope, they lost a lot of their economic thrust in the past five years because of a deep recession and the ensuing cutbacks in air travel.
That’s according to a new study from the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division.
The study found that Steamboat Springs Airport’s average annual economic output is $8.8 million, and Yampa Valley Regional Airport’s is $299 million.
Out of the state’s 14 commercial airports, Yampa Valley Regional Airport’s economic impact still ranks as the sixth highest.
It is estimated Hayden’s airport also sustains about 3,034 jobs while Steamboat’s sustains 86.
But if you compare the total economic impact of the airports to what they were estimated to be in 2008, Steamboat’s airport saw a 25 percent drop, and Yampa Valley Regional Airport saw a 27 percent drop.
Fewer passengers, lighter planes
Once the recession started, Yampa Valley Regional Airport Manager Dave Ruppel said the airport was hit quickly.
He said that in the first year of the downturn, it saw about a 35 to 40 percent drop in total number of passengers boarding planes, or enplanements, and a 30 percent drop in the overall weight of the planes that were landing at the airport.
A significant revenue source for the airport are the landing fees that are based on the weight of aircraft.
“All of the airlines have juggled around what size they’re using on these routes and, in most cases, are going to smaller aircraft,” Ruppel said.
He said the numbers still haven’t rebounded from where they were before 2008, but he’s optimistic about the next five years.
“I think we’re starting to see those things turn around, and we’re very optimistic about this year’s winter season and the opportunity we and the community have to start seeing it turn around,” he said.
He said a sign of that is a recent shift from people booking airfare closer to the date of their flights to more long-term planning.
Chuck Anderson, Steamboat’s public works director, said the lower economic impact estimate at Bob Adams Field wasn’t unexpected.
“When I look at it, it’s definitely the economic downturn,” Anderson said. “Across the board, I think you’re going to have not as many people flying into the airport.”
General aviation airports primarily make their money from fuel sales, Anderson said, and Steamboat’s airport is just now getting back to a point where it is selling nearly as much fuel as it did six years ago.
In 2007, he said about 116,000 gallons of fuel was sold at the airport. Last year, it sold about 94,000 gallons.
Aircraft operations also have taken a slight hit.
In 2007, the airport logged about 12,398 operations that include takeoffs and landings. Last year, it saw 11,738.
Anderson said the latest report shouldn’t detract from the significant economic and civil impacts the airport has on the community.
“We need to better explain all of the things our airport offers,” Anderson said as he ticked off a list of uses that include medical flights, the Civil Air Patrol, firefighting flights and general tourism.
He said the city is in the process of convening a new airport users group that will help plan for the facility’s future.
It also is planning to add eight new hangars in two phases starting next year.
Several other general aviation airports on the Western Slope saw their economic impacts fall sharply in the latest study.
They include Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport, which saw its impact drop from an estimated $9.6 million in 2008 to $3.9 million today, and the Animas Airpark in Durango, which saw its impact drop dramatically from $10.6 million to $2.2 million.
But Aeronautics Division Director David Gordon said Tuesday that the two studies shouldn’t be compared because the last one that was done in 2008 was likely “too optimistic” in its impact estimates for some airports and wasn’t as accurate overall.
“The study we did in 2008 used a whole different model than what we used this time,” he said. “In the new study, we split the state into six economic regions and used multipliers that were more specific to that part of the state because we thought it would be more accurate.”
He added the latest study also used more exact data supplied directly from airport managers, and the drops in some airports can be contributed to a combination of the cuts in leisure travel, higher fuel prices and the more optimistic numbers in the past study.
The study concluded that Colorado’s airports together sustain 265,700 jobs statewide and have an economic output of $36.7 billion.