Canyonlands Field Airport is a busy place these days.

Reliable passenger airline service has boosted enplanement numbers to record highs, and with more people flying in and out of Moab, Essential Air Service carrier SkyWest has plans to bring bigger planes to the facility.

The pending shift is part of a broader company initiative to replace its aging 30-seat EMB 120 Brasilia planes with 50-seat regional jet service aircraft, according to Grand County Airport Board member Bob Greenberg.

SkyWest representatives informed the airport board last week that the St. George company will “probably” make the move to larger aircraft at some point in 2015, according to the draft minutes of the board’s Oct. 6 meeting. But they did not give the board a more specific time frame.

Specificity is exactly what Greenberg is looking for. If the board is going to plan ahead for potential improvements to the airport’s runway, he said it needs to know when the change might be implemented, given the amount of time and money involved.

Even if SkyWest holds off until the latter part of 2015, Greenberg is concerned that the airport will not be able to upgrade its runway in time to accommodate the larger and heavier planes. If there is a delay, Greenberg fears it could lead to a gap in service — or a change in carriers, at worst.

“It’s not possible to make it happen by next summer because of the required planning process,” he said Oct. 10.

In Greenberg’s mind, the summer of 2016 is the absolute earliest that the runway could be upgraded.

If the county is not involved in the planning process, he said, the work might not get done until some time between 2020 and 2023.

Overall costs to improve the airport, including work to expand and strengthen the runway, could cost an estimated $10 million, according to Greenberg.

Funding is an issue, he said, but it’s not an enormous issue: The airport might be able to obtain a loan from the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board (CIB), or it could turn to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for help.

A bigger issue is the fact that the airport would need to complete detailed studies before it could move forward with the work.

“(The airport) lives on federal grants, so an Environmental Assessment would probably be required,” Greenberg said.

As anyone who follows public lands-related issues knows, that process does not happen overnight.

“You can’t do an Environmental Assessment in several weeks, or even several months,” Greenberg said.

The good news, he said, is that state and FAA officials are interested in an accelerated process.

But that accelerated process would come at a cost to Grand County.

If the airport is going to forge ahead on its own, it has to come up with an estimated $262,000 to revise the facility’s master plan and other planning documents.

The board is turning to the county for financial help, and although Grand County Council chairman Lynn Jackson won’t predict how other council members may vote on the request, he thinks the funding is available.

Jackson supports the concepts that Greenberg outlined. But he, for one, said he needs a clearer sense of SkyWest’s plans before he makes a decision on the board’s request.

“That’s what leads to a little bit of my uncertainty — the vagueness,” Jackson said Oct. 14.

“I need to reserve my final thoughts until we’re fully briefed,” he added.

SkyWest Corporate Communications Director Marissa Snow said the company does not have any immediate plans to adjust its service to Canyonlands Field.

But according to the draft minutes of the airport board’s Oct. 6 meeting, two SkyWest representatives said the change would likely come next year.

Up until that time, Greenberg said the company never indicated that it would be switching planes during its current Essential Air Service contract period, which runs until March 2016.

“This is really irritating. It represents a 180-degree shift for them,” Greenberg said. “They swore that they were committed to the (EMB 120s) forever.”

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison countered that a SkyWest representative gave him a heads-up about the company’s long-term plans when it was competing with former carrier Great Lakes Airlines for the federal contract to serve Canyonlands Field.

“He said, ‘at some point in time, we will be discontinuing or phasing these planes out,’” Sakrison said.

According to Sakrison, the representative said the airplane manufacturer no longer makes parts for the Metroliners, and as a result, the maintenance costs on the older planes keep going up.

However, that person did not specify when SkyWest hopes to switch over to the new aircraft.

“We don’t know what their timetable is,” he said.

Despite that uncertainty, Sakrison supports efforts to improve the airport’s infrastructure.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a logical progression in the life of this airport,” he said. “It’s something that we needed to address at some point in time.”

Sakrison said he’s very impressed with SkyWest, and he doesn’t share Greenberg’s sense of irritation regarding the company’s latest presentation to the airport board.

“They’re doing this as a courtesy for us. This is something that we needed to address a couple years earlier, and they’re just holding our feet to the fire,” he said.

Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay also believes the airport has to prepare for the future.

“As we as a community grow, the airport has to grow with us,” she said.

She’s hopeful that SkyWest will be the one to serve the community’s future needs, based on the rave reviews she’s heard about the company.

“It’s a great service,” DeLay said. “It’s been very good and very dependable, and as far as that goes, we’re all very happy with the service.”

Still, DeLay acknowledged that Greenberg and others were taken aback by the suddenness of the company’s recent announcement to the airport board.

“There’s a concern there, and to me, it’s a valid concern,” she said.

In the months before the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a two-year Essential Air Service contract to the company, SkyWest officials actively courted the community for its support.

“A year ago, we heard SkyWest tell us that they would do anything they could do to be our provider,” DeLay said. “And we gave them our support.”

Yet here the company is, less than one year into its contract, telling the airport board something that supporters couldn’t have fathomed at the time, she said.

“You said to us that you’re going to do this for two years, and now you’re saying that you’re not going to,” she said.

Bigger runway needed for larger 50-seat regional jets