Airport to focus on winter diversions to improve bottom line
Citizen Telegram Editor
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 has been developed over the last 18 months and is scheduled to be considered for adoption by the county commissioners on June 9 that recommends the county focus on “diversion” aircraft instead of general aviation planes.
“Diversion” air traffic are private and corporate jets – but not commercial airlines – that have to land at the airport in Rifle when the airports in or near ski resorts like 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.
“All the forecasts say small general aviation aircraft are doing 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.”
Jet fuel, Condie noted, is around $6 a gallon, insurance costs are up and the economy just doesn’t allow many pilots to continue to own and fly their planes.
The 615-acre airport operates with a annual budget of approximately $800,000, he said, and brings in another $500,000 through aviation 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?
One change not included in the master plan concerns the Rando t-hangars that house small planes. Condie said they were built in the 1980s and are scheduled to be turned over to the county in 2016.
“My recommendation to the commissioners is that they tear them down instead,” Condie said. “The concrete upheaves every winter and you can’t even open some of the doors. 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 position 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 the t-hangars 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 airport lost some small aircraft when the county shut down the airport for about a year for a runway relocation project several years ago, Savage said.
“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.”
Small aircraft pay just two percent of the airport’s bills, but are also local residents that supply up to 75 percent of local tax generation in the Rifle community, Condie noted.
“So we don’t want to ignore them,” he said. “We want to continue to see discretionary income in the community.”
The private and corporate jets, in contrast, pay the other 98 percent of the airport’s bills, through landing fees and jet fuel sales, Condie said.
When bad weather does hit in the winter, the airport has been busy. Condie said on Jan. 4, when both the Aspen and Eagle airports were closed, 128 small jets landed in Rifle. That compares to a year-round average of 46 jets a day.
Condie said 77 percent of all revenue generated by the airport is weather-related, and navigation and communication equipment upgrades are planned to help pilots of those jets find and land quicker in Rifle during bad weather.
“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 FBO, Rifle Jet Service, in 2007 and hopes to continue to operate in Rifle over the 10 years in the master plan. The company employs 15 people in the summer and up to 18 in the winter.
Carver and customer service manager Jenna Porter served on the airport users committee that helped produce the plan.
“When the airport grows, we want to grow,” Carver said. “We work hand in hand with the county, so we were interested in every aspect of the plan.”
The decline in small general aviation aircraft means diversion traffic can help financially, both for the county and Atlantic, he added.
New name adopted
The business 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 project 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 funds will be sought from the Federal Aviation Administration. However, a runway extension was not found to be warranted over the next 10 years, Condie noted.
“Really, what we have here now is what we’ll have for the next ten years,” he said.
The 140-page master plan was funded by a $150,000 state grant, Condie said, and will update the last master plan, completed in 2004. The new plan will also include a 10-year business plan, along with an airport layout plan. If adopted by the commissioners, it will be sent to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has 120 days to approve it, Condie said.
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