Expanded airport faces challenges, complications
Ribbon cutting christens terminal, longer runway

The grand opening of Canyonlands Field Airport on Saturday, June 2 brought people from around the state to christen the new runway and expanded terminal. The event marked the dawn of an era for the airport, opening the gates for more flights, more passengers, and the challenges that will accompany increased traffic.

Despite ongoing construction–mostly finishing touches such as painting the runway and parking lot–May was the busiest month in the airport’s history. According to airport director Judd Hill, overall business in May alone constitutes “20 percent of the total for 2017.” Increasing Moab’s accessibility and flying in a swath of new visitors may be a boon for the tourism economy, but the airport staff is struggling to shoulder the added weight.

Now, the terminal has been expanded to double its previous size and the runway is 40 percent larger, yet the operational staff for the airport remains at just three full-time employees, including the director. “I’m running my staff ragged,” said Hill. During the month of May, Hill and his two operations specialists “did 215 hours of unscheduled, extra time.” The issue is one of safety and security. To meet FAA and Homeland Security requirements, the airport needs two more full-time employees. “The security aspects…are only getting more complicated,” claimed Hill. The airport’s location 16 miles north of Moab adds further challenges. Unlike other comparably sized airports, Canyonlands Field cannot rely on Moab firefighters for an immediate response in case of emergency.

The problem of airport understaffing and overworking is compounded by the fact all custodial duties are still handled in-house. The result has been “a lot of complaints about the cleanliness of the building,” said Hill. Maintaining the operations of the airport and ensuring security standards are met must take priority, Hill said, so cleaning has fallen by the wayside. “To clean the terminal, from one end to the other,” it takes one person “about six hours, and that’s not counting windows,” Hill said.

At the Grand County Airport Board meeting held on June 4, board members debated the merits of contracting the cleaning work versus hiring full-time janitorial staff. Contracting could be more cost effective and would avoid the obstacle of finding qualified help in Moab, but hiring allows for full accountability, cross training, and the potential for earning a promotion. After lengthy discussion, the board passed two motions, deciding to approach the county council with a request to hire four full-time employees: two operations specialists and two janitors.

Celebrations at the airport’s grand opening included a speech from Christine Watkins, Utah State Representative for District 69. Master of ceremonies at the event was Bill Groff, chair of the airport board. “Everyone did a fabulous job,” Groff said, thanking all the people who helped make the event happen. Hill was given commendation for his instrumental role in ensuring the complex construction project was completed in just 119 days, in time for the first SkyWest flight. Breakfast at the ribbon cutting was provided by Armstrong Consultants, Grand County’s airport engineering firm.

ByBy Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent