RIFLE — Praying for snow has an additional meaning for officials and companies at what is now called the Rifle Garfield County Airport.
A 10-year update to the airport master plan that is to be considered by county commissioners June 9 recommends the county focus on “diversion” aircraft instead of general aviation planes.
“Diversion” air traffic is private and corporate jets — but not commercial airlines — that must land in Rifle when airports near ski resorts including Aspen and Vail are shut down by heavy snow. Airport Manager Brian Condie said focusing on such admittedly weather-dependent traffic shows more promise than the smaller general aviation, single engine aircraft.
The private jets account for 98 percent of the airport’s revenue, so a key enhancement in the 10-year plan is improved navigation and communication equipment to make it easier for pilots to locate the airport in bad weather.
“All the forecasts say small general aviation aircraft are going to decline over the next 10 years, and the sales and use of the larger private jets are supposed to increase,” he said.
Since 2000, Condie added, new small aircraft sales in the U.S. have declined by 56 percent.
“There are several small planes here that the owners haven’t flown in two years,” he said. “But they have to do annual maintenance and have it inspected. It’s just getting too expensive for the small plane owner.”
The 615-acre airport operates with an annual budget of approximately $800,000, he said, and brings in another $500,000 through fuel sales, landing fees and hangar leases. A 2013 economic impact study by the Colorado Department of Transportation found the airport in Rifle contributed just under $57 million to the area economy.
The airport has a landing capacity of 1,000 planes a day, and would need to have 100,000 in one year in order to qualify for an air traffic control tower, Condie said. Currently, the airport has about 24,000 landings a year.
Hangars a dispute?
Condie wants commissioners to tear down privately owned hangers built in the 1980s that house small planes and are scheduled to be turned over to the county in 2016.
“The concrete upheaves every winter and you can’t even open some of the doors,” he said. “I don’t want to take on the liability if something happens and a plane is damaged, or someone is hurt.”
Building new hangars has an 18-year return on investment, Condie added.
“No good business model has an 18-year return on investment,” he said. “So I’m recommending they tear them down.”
That doesn’t sit well with the 10 small plane owners who lease space in the hangars for what Condie thought might be the lowest rates at any airport in the state.
John Savage of Rifle is a pilot and owns a separate set of hangars, along with five of those at issue.
“We plan to ask the county commissioners to renew the lease before we go making any major repairs,” he said.
Savage said another concern with the county hangars is that some are for small aircraft, others are for the small private jets.
“The county wants to build more of the block hangars for the small jets,” he added.
“The county’s been quite good at maintaining services for the small planes,” he said. “But the jets that use several thousand gallons of jet fuel are the ones that pay the bills. So I understand why they want those jets to be the primary consideration.”
While small aircraft pay just 2 percent of the airport’s bills, they also are owned by local residents, Condie noted.
“So we don’t want to ignore them,” he said.
SNOW MEANS A busy day
When bad weather does hit in the winter, the airport has been busy. Condie said that on Jan. 4, when both the Aspen and Eagle airports were closed, 128 small jets landed in Rifle. That compares with a year-round average of 46 jets a day.
Condie said 77 percent of all revenue generated by the airport is weather-related, so the navigation and communication upgrades make sense.
“So we want to increase the weather diversion traffic and help our bottom line go up,” he added.
The airport’s fixed-base operator, which services aircraft that land and take off, is Atlantic Aviation Services. Area manager Justin Carver said the company purchased the previous operator, Rifle Jet Service, in 2007 and hopes to continue to operate in Rifle over the 10 years under the master plan. The company employs 15 people in the summer and up to 18 in the winter.
The plan identified two potential names for the airport: the official Garfield County Regional Airport and the one aircraft flight charts use, with the name of the city closest to the airport. Condie said an airport users committee picked the name “Rifle Garfield County Airport,” which was officially adopted on Jan. 1. A new logo and signs are planned to be unveiled this year, at a cost of more than $70,000.
Among projects in the master plan are a new fuel farm to replace the current one that has constant problems with cracked concrete, Condie said. The airport entrance is to be redesigned as well. All the projects will cost at least $1 million and money will be sought from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The 140-page master plan was paid for by a $150,000 state grant, Condie said. If adopted by commissioners, it will be sent to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has 120 days to approve it, Condie said.