Moab is an out-of-the-way place.
Public transportation in and out of the county has always been a challenge. We lost our scheduled airline service the first time when Frontier pulled out in the late 1960s. The train stopped making a stop in Thompson. Elevated Transit’s bus service to SLC bit the dust not too long ago, leaving the nearest bus stop 54 miles away in Green River. Great Lakes Airlines left with a whimper (thankfully, not a bang) in spite of its Essential Air Service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Most recently, SkyWest Airlines made a corporate 180-degree turn and abandoned its twin-engine prop planes in favor of 50-passenger jets that are too big to use the runway at Canyonlands Field, making it impossible for them to continue to serve Grand County. All in all, a sorry and frustrating but understandable history in light of how far we are from major transportation hubs.
Meanwhile, tourism has boomed, with millions of visitors each year and a small wave of telecommuting professionals who have made Moab their home. At the same time, the demand for quick, reasonable public transportation in and out of Moab on the part of business and government has steadily increased.
Boutique Airlines stepped in to serve Moab when it won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s contract for Essential Air Service in 2016. They provide daily service to SLC and Denver in single-engine eight or nine seat airplanes. Their service is reliable and efficient, but suffers from relatively low capacity and having to land outside of TSA, which requires passengers to shuttle to the main terminals carrying their bags and go through security there.
When SkyWest pulled out, the Grand County Airport Board looked around and discovered that nationally, due to market forces, regional carriers were switching to 50- and 70-passenger regional jets. Following the Board’s recommendations, the county began discussions with the FAA, the Utah Department of Transportation and the CIB to fund an upgrade of the airports infrastructure: the runway, taxiway and terminal to accommodate 50-passenger jets. With the support of those entities, the funding ($12 million) was secured; the environmental and engineering studies were set in motion and the design work started. Groundbreaking on the runway and taxiway will start this winter with completion in early spring 2018. To support this, the U.S. Department of Transportation has pushed ahead the bid for the next two-year Essential Air Service contract for service starting in March of 2018 when the new runway and taxiway are complete. Those bids are now in and include a bid from SkyWest for daily jet service to Denver and one from Boutique to continue its small-plane prop service to both SLC and Denver. It looks at last as if the tide is turning on air service to and from Moab.
Over the last few years, the county has made at the Airport Board’s recommendation other significant investments in upgrading the airport. A new terminal and water and sewer system were constructed to replace the old, dilapidated facilities. And for the first time, a full-time professional airport manager was added to Grand County’s staff. A professional Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF) crew was put together to man the new, dedicated airport fire engine. A new building was constructed to house the fire truck, other equipment and staff.
All of this has catalyzed a major uptick in economic activity at the airport, with multiple new businesses and construction of both private and commercial hangars. Rentals, fees and taxes have all increased and help offset the airport’s costs.
Moab will always be an out-of-the-way place, but we look forward to the time when it will not be such a challenge to get here. Many of the tourists who flock to Grand County already fly here, but have to settle for landing in SLC, Denver or Grand Junction and renting a car for the last leg of their journey. The airport upgrade may not increase the number of visitors to Moab, but it will allow people to fly to Moab more easily and thus bring more of their spending here. Whether you believe that Grand County’s future lies in tourism, extraction, manufacturing or retirement, a safe, convenient and efficient airport will only be a positive contribution.
It looks at last as if the tide is turning on air service to and from Moab.
Bob Greenberg is a former Grand County Council member and has been on the Grand County Airport Board since before Orville and Wilbur opened their bike shop.