A plane lands at Canyonlands Field Airport's runway. The airport board is hoping to move forward with improvements to the runway late next year. [Photo courtesy of Canyonlands Field Airport]

Construction work at an active airport is a tricky job, as Grand County Airport Board members figured out earlier this month.

A majority of board members are asking the Grand County Council to move forward with the process to begin an estimated $10 million in upgrades to Canyonlands Field Airport in late 2016. If approved, the improvements to the facility’s runway would clear the way for bigger planes to land there, which could bring more passenger airline traffic to Moab.

Summer might seem like the right season to get started on the work to widen the runway, judging by the often-ideal weather outdoors. But it also happens to be a very busy time of year at the airport, and major construction activities on the runway would inevitably shut down not only passenger air service, but charter airline flights and fixed-base operations, as well.

To lessen the wallop on Red Tail Aviation and other companies that operate at Canyonlands Field, the board’s majority postponed that recommended construction timeframe to the winter of 2016-2017, according to Grand County Airport Board vice chair Bill Joss.

“The hope is that we can minimize the amount of time that the airport is shut down, and that we can minimize the impacts on the businesses out there,” Joss said March 11.

Grand County would be required to commit some funding to the project. But the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to pick up the bulk of the tab, and state officials have also signaled their financial support for the improvements, according to airport board member Bob Greenberg.

“It’s never final until you sign a contract, but that’s a pretty good assurance,” he said.

Greenberg said he cast one of two dissenting votes against the board’s recommendation as a show of solidarity with businesses at the airport.

Still, he said he doesn’t see a more practical path forward.

“As one of the two dissenters, I’m totally in support of this decision,” Greenberg said.

While there are bound to be disruptions in the short term, Greenberg said the runway-widening project will ultimately prepare Canyonlands Field for future growth, as the airline industry shifts away from smaller aircraft.

The move to upgrade the runway comes after current Essential Air Service carrier SkyWest Airlines announced that it could no longer serve Canyonlands Field for that very same reason. The St. George company said it is switching its entire fleet to bigger planes that the airport’s existing runway cannot accommodate.

SkyWest is scheduled to fly its last plane out of Canyonlands Field on April 30, and although the U.S. Department of Transportation has not yet awarded a contract for a new carrier, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison expects that the transition will be a smooth one.

He sees it as a foregone conclusion that the contract will go to Great Lakes Aviation, which submitted a proposal for twice-daily roundtrip service between Canyonlands Field and Denver International Airport. Both the Grand County Airport Board and the Grand County Council have formally supported Great Lakes’ bid to serve the airport, and their combined voices carry weight with the federal transportation department.

“I don’t know when Great Lakes is going to start, but it’s soon, hopefully,” Sakrison said March 10.

Moab City Council member Kirstin Peterson said she hopes that a new carrier will take over as quickly as possible.

“That would be great, if we have very little downtime,” she said.

Whichever carrier ends up serving Canyonlands Field, Greenberg said the airport board is committed to the upgrades it proposed to the county council.

“We’re still headed down that path,” Greenberg said.

There were some twists and turns along the way, though.

According to Greenberg, the original proposal called for the construction work to begin in May 2016, and then continue for somewhere between two to four months.

“Which really would have killed (airport businesses), and we could not support that,” Greenberg said.

Before it settled on its final recommendation, Greenberg said the airport board examined several alternatives, including a “very seductive” proposal to build a new runway from scratch. However, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns the site they were looking at, and Greenberg said that the process to potentially acquire that land is not feasible.

“To do the whole shebang … would cost more than twice as much, and would require a land acquisition from the BLM and a full Environmental Impact Statement,” Greenberg said.

“It’s a good idea, but it’s not a good idea,” he added. “If there were no constraints on time and money, it would be the way to go.”

The board’s final recommendation to shift runway construction activities to the quieter – and colder – off-season poses its own set of challenges.

According to Joss, the asphalt work can only be done when temperatures are above 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The good news, Joss said, is that construction crews could get started on earth-work activities by some time late next year.

In addition to the work on the main runway, Greenberg said the airport board is also eyeing potential improvements to Canyonlands Field’s long-neglected Crosswind runway.

“With a little bit of grading and a little surface preparation, it would be an acceptable runway for both the fixed-base operator and private pilots, as well as the skydivers and the balloonists,” he said.

Greenberg isn’t sure how much that smaller project would cost, but he believes the work could be done in a matter of days.

Airport says expansion needed to accommodate bigger planes

“The hope is that we can minimize the amount of time that the airport is shut down, and that we can minimize the impacts on the businesses out there.”