The Canyonlands Field Airport is closed; when it opens again, it will feature SkyWest offering daily commuter flights to Denver; and the airport’s director, Judd Hill, has been named Utah Airport Manager of the Year.
Each of those things has everything to do with the others.
“If an airport manager has had a particularly onerous project, or a big project, and he handled it well, or a particular situation or problem that he’s handled well, not just a one-off, but a big thing — and he’s taken the effort to go after it, airport managers who handle it well, we recognize,” said Jared Esselman, director of the Utah Department of Transportation Division of Aeronautics, which bestows the distinction.
That’s why Hill got the award this year, Esselman said.
What was Hill’s big, onerous project? It was expansion of the runway, and the terminal and construction on those projects is what has the airport closed until May. It was an effort to accommodate SkyWest flights that led to that project.
“Judd had one issue,” Esselman said — SkyWest had discontinued its 30-passenger propeller planes in favor of 50-passenger jets. But Canyonlands’ runway couldn’t handle the larger planes. In 2015 (with regret, Hill said) SkyWest pulled out.
Esselman said, “[Moab was] going to lose a major economic component of the community. So Judd took that to the state and said, “Okay, we need to get this service back.”
If things continue according to plan, Hill will have done just that. SkyWest will begin offering daily flights between Denver and Moab as soon as the airport reopens. People can already begin booking flights on certain travel websites.
The project will double the size of the airport. To have such a large project done all at once, and so soon, is unusual. “Very much so,” Hill said Tuesday. But there again was SkyWest as the connector. “Unless they had said, ‘We want to serve you with jets,’ we would not have gotten the grants from the FAA.”
In addition to Hill going to the FAA, “He’s been going at this from all different angles,” Esselman said. “He’s been to the capitol, and looking for grant funding, and asking for things that most airport managers wouldn’t’ have known about or think to ask about.”
Like most large-scale projects, there was a succession of obstacles.
“We thought his extra-mile effort to correct the issue, and then another issue, and then another issue, and then another issue, showed what a good airport manager he’s been.”
Hill said he was “definitely humbled” with the honor, and then gave credit to others: the airport board, the Grand County Council, consultants and airport staff.
“They’ve been way instrumental in making this happen,” Hill said.
He said he’s “excited about where the airport is going, and what it will be able to provide not only to Moab and Grand County, but all of southeastern Utah.”
With TSA agents, rental-car and other airport-related employees, Hill said he anticipates up to 20 new jobs can be directly attributed to the expansion and SkyWest contract.
But as successful as Hill has been elsewhere, he seemed a bit disappointed when it came to how the airport has been funded in the county’s 2018 budget. He reported about that Monday to the airport board.
With those who hold the county’s purse strings, he said he spent “a whole lot of discussion trying to advocate for the airport, and it didn’t work out as well as I had hoped … We’re doubling in size and the budget is shrinking.”
Hill summarized his efforts to publicize the fact that the airport was closed. But even then, he said, in the week since it had closed, three pilots had flown in and had to be turned away.
While the airport is closed to planes, it will still be able to accommodate helicopters for law enforcement, medical situations and search and rescue, Hill said.