Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill and Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay spoke in favor of a request for county funding that could fast-track improvements to Canyonlands Field Airport's runway, which could bring even more visitors through the facility each year. DeLay and other local officials say that SkyWest's passenger air service to Canyonlands Field has been a boon to the local economy. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Grand County’s share of overnight lodging revenue shot up by 14 percent in the first half of 2014, thanks to active tourist marketing campaigns, a strong slate of local events and new passenger airline service to Moab’s airport.

The county collected more than $1.03 million in Transient Room Taxes between January and June, compared to $864,826 it brought in during the same period in 2013. At the same time, the Moab Area Travel Council’s share of overnight lodging tax revenue jumped from $862,545 in the first half of 2013 to $923,846 in early 2014.

While it’s a stretch to link the increase to any single factor, Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay said that improved service at Canyonlands Field Airport has been key to this year’s growth.

“It’s a very important economic driver,” she said.

According to DeLay, travelers’ confidence in service to the airport has only grown since March, when St. George-based SkyWest Airlines took over as the airport’s Essential Air Service carrier.

Passenger airline traffic at the airport is currently up by a whopping 257 percent since a low point in 2009. Between March and September alone, SkyWest brought in almost as many passengers as previous carriers did during an annual average over a six-year period.

“When you have steady and trustworthy service, you have more and more people using that,” DeLay said.

If the number of enplanements hits the 9,000 mark by year’s end, as expected, DeLay estimates that passenger traffic will add $4 million to the local economy.

While SkyWest’s Essential Air Service contract runs until March 2016, the near-term future of that service is somewhat cloudy.

Earlier this month, SkyWest representatives informed the Grand County Airport Board that the company plans to phase out its 30-seat turboprop aircraft at some point next year in favor of 50-seat regional jet service.

However, the airport’s runway is not big enough to accommodate those larger planes, and Grand County Airport Board member Bob Greenberg fears there could be a gap in service if SkyWest switches to them in 2015. By his estimates, the required runway improvements could not be made until the summer of 2016 at the earliest.

To speed up the process, the Grand County Council voted unanimously on Oct. 21 to approve the airport board’s request for up to $270,000 in funding. The money will be used to update the airport’s master plan and layout plan, with the hope that the runway expansion and improvements can be fast-tracked to minimize or avoid any gaps in service.

At full capacity, the bigger planes could bring more than 35,000 people into Canyonlands Field each year, and DeLay estimates that those passengers could generate $15.47 million in annual economic activity.

Judd Hill, the airport’s new manager, said the improvements are essential to future growth at Canyonlands Field.

“It’s an industrywide shift,” Hill told the county council. “We do need to adapt to provide coverage.”

Red Cliffs Lodge owner Colin Fryer told the council that SkyWest’s plans could speed up a process that’s inevitable, adding that any improvements to the airport will only benefit his business.

“It’s like going from a horse and buggy to a car,” Fryer said. “This will bring us a higher-end clientele.”

Greenberg told the Moab Sun News that local residents, as well as corporate executives who do business in the area, also stand to gain from a runway expansion.

“It’s not just tourists that we’re talking about,” Greenberg said.

Business travelers, in particular, see Canyonlands Field as a preferable alternative to Walker Field Airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, according to Greenberg.

“The days are long gone when businesses are willing to do without modern transportation,” he said. “If you’re an executive, devoting half a day getting from the airport to town is a really expensive proposition, and that’s what a trip through Walker Field requires.”

Although SkyWest’s service has been a boon to the tourism and hospitality industry, DeLay noted that it’s just one of several economic drivers.

According to DeLay, organizers of local events have also played a role in bringing more visitors to town. So has the Utah Office of Tourism, whose “Mighty 5” marketing campaign has actively promoted the state’s national parks, including nearby Arches and Canyonlands.

Meanwhile, local businesses have stepped up their own marketing campaigns, and the combined efforts ultimately paid off during the height of this year’s tourist season, according to DeLay.

“(Business owners) are happy,” DeLay said. “They have invested in this community, and they have worked hard to build their businesses based on the fact that we are a tourist community.”

Airport improvements could boost county revenue, local economic activity  

Moab Sun News Staff Writer Eric Trenbeath contributed to this report.