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March 2016

Sliding on Air

The urge to slide down slippery slopes seems to be primal, embedded in the human DNA. For centuries, people have been coming up with all sorts of devices to satisfy that urge: skis, snowboards, sleds, toboggans, inner tubes, snurfers, snow bikes, skiboards, sit-skis. Now, you can add one more device to the list: airboards. These could become the latest in the expanding options available at winter resorts.

Written by Peter Oliver | 0 comment

An airboard, about four feet long and weighing six pounds, is basically an inflatable sled. It is made of a urethane-based fabric and looks like an inflatable raft that you might use for lounging in a swimming pool, mai-tai in hand. But with a slightly tapered aerodynamic shape, hand grips on the sides, and rubber-like runners glued to the bottom, the airboard can be steered on snow when the user, lying chest-down on top of it, changes direction with body lean.

Unlike tubing, airboards do not require a lane and can be taken onto an open slope, where the user can make turns and more or less go where he or she desires. Promotional videos even show some acrobatic maneuvers: jumps, flips, and twists in the air, where the pilot sometimes remains attached to the board upon landing, and sometimes not. For the most part, however, airboarding is being marketed as easy and fun-for-the-whole-family entertainment.

According to Bill Pawson, owner of Tube Pro Inc., North American distributor of airboards (as well as snow tubes and other water-sport inflatables), airboarding has been around for about 12 years, with 3,000 to 8,000 boards manufactured annually, the significant majority of which go to European resorts. This isn’t surprising, since in the Alps, sledding in various forms has been embraced for years.

Still a relatively nouveau concept in North America, Pawson doesn’t expect airboarding to sweep the continent to the degree tubing has. He would be pleased if market penetration reached 50 North American areas, each with a 20- to 40-board fleet.

Airboarding is, in a way, tweener entertainment—more adventurous and athletic than tubing, but without requiring the athletic skill or expensive equipment involved in skiing and riding. As Pawson puts it, airboarding is a way of “bridging the gap between active sports like skiing and passive sports like tubing.”

Early Adopters

Montage Mountain Resort, Pa., added airboards to its lineup about two years ago. Located between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the northeastern part of the state, Montage is what director of front-end operations Tyler Crawford calls “an urban area.” With about 1,000 vertical feet and 26 runs on 140 acres, it is a mid-sized mountain. Its clientele spans expert skiers and riders to first-timers.

For years, Montage has offered tubing as an alternative activity to skiing and riding. The stepped-up adventure component of airboarding, though, got the area’s attention. Crawford says it’s an activity that appeals to people “who want adventure but don’t want to spend the time and money to become expert (skiers or riders).”

Because airboarding has a limited track record, Montage started cautiously. The resort ordered a few boards for employees and friends to test-ride to assess safety and ease of use before offering the activity to the public. After successful testing, two years ago Montage ordered 165 airboards, four times the number purchased by any other area in the U.S., according to Pawson. The ski area has placed few restrictions on their use.

Although Pawson acknowledges airboards could benefit from having their own designated area on a mountain, Montage has given airboarders a mostly free run. They’re restricted from expert trails, excluded during peak hours, excluded when the total amount of open terrain is limited (due to a dearth of snow), and aren’t allowed on the mountain if snow conditions are particularly icy or slippery. Lacking metal edges, the boards are difficult to control on ice.

But on the average weekday, airboarders ages 10 and up have most of Montage at their disposal. Users are required to sign a waiver similar to those for tubing, and first-timers must take a short lesson. Crawford says, “nine out of 10 guests can get it (including loading the lift with an airboard) after one run.”

The boards have proven to be surprisingly safe, even if mingling with other mountain users might sound like a recipe for chaos. In two seasons of full operation, there have been just two minor injuries. Montage did not have to adapt its liability coverage to accommodate airboarding—perhaps an indication that insurance companies don’t regard the activity as unusually hazardous.

Such an aggressive airboard program might not suit every area. And there are other implementation models. Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., for example, got into airboarding about eight years ago, on a much smaller scale. The resort has just 11 boards in its fleet. It wasn’t expecting airboarding to be a profit center, but an added amenity that could make the overall family-oriented experience more appealing.

Smuggs’ largely segregates airboarders from skiers and riders. The resort limits airboards to a single, gentle trail off of its lightly-used Morse Highlands lift. While the trail is always open to skiers and riders, airboarders are only allowed between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and only as part of a guided clinic.

If airboarding is to become more widespread, the real issue for any resort operator is: can it be profitable? Crawford says it has taken about two years to pay off the initial investment. Stacey Comishock, activities and aquatics director at Smugglers’, says that the resort is at least able to cover its costs—essentially the cost of the boards and guides—by charging $25 per person for a clinic. She says that on busy weeks, the clinics regularly sell out.

As with snow tubes, airboards are relatively maintenance-free, with not much more involved than inflating the boards from time to time and deflating them at the end of the season. Durability, says Crawford, is a selling point. At this point, airboards have no summer application (e.g., in a water park), but when they are deflated and stored for the summer, says Crawford, they take up a relatively small space in the resort’s rental shop.

In the end, airboards give resorts one more outlet for visitors. With millions of kids already attuned to sledding, airboards could find a ready audience. As Comishock says, “Why not?”