Small Craft Warnings

Regional airports had high hopes when DIA said it wasn't interested in private avaiation. But guess what? DIA changed its mind. Again. Gorilla tactics as dia makes a grab for private planes, regional airports bail out of their expansion plans.

Then again, airport officials used to say DIA would never provide hangar space for larger private aircraft, either.

When DIA was approved by Denver voters, airport planners announced that in order to enhance safety and optimize takeoff and landing capacity, "no general aviation aircraft will be based at the new Denver airport." DIA would be closed to "all aviation other than the military and licensed commercial carriers," such as United, Continental and other major airlines.

Although Stapleton had encouraged general aviation, DIA would not; jumbo jets carrying several hundred passengers shouldn't be forced to circle the airport so that a single-engine Cessna could land, planners pointed out. Instead, private planes would be allowed at DIA only to refuel at a small terminal at the north end. There would be no hangar space or other accommodations.

In light of DIA's stance on private aviation, in 1989 the Federal Aviation Administration commissioned a master plan of the area's airport facilities. The result was the Denver Regional Council of Governments' "Regional Aviation System Plan for 2010," which called for $68 million in expansions at regional airports to accommodate the shift in general aviation business. The airports would need control towers, runway extensions, new radar equipment and other improvements, DRCOG said. But even that wouldn't be enough. DRCOG predicted that the metro area would need a new airport altogether: Southeast Airport, in central Arapahoe County. As described in DRCOG's master plan, Southeast would compensate for the expected closings of two small private air parks--Aurora, located east of Denver, and Van Aire, located north of the city--as well as the loss of Stapleton's general aviation hangars. Van Aire and Aurora have remained open, however. "And with the shifting of the Stapleton operations to DIA, there is no need for Southeast," says Michael Adams, chief aviation analyst for DRCOG. All work on Southeast Airport has been halted. Adams is in the process of preparing an updated master plan for DRCOG--one considerably more modest than that of five years ago. Although some regional airports have managed to add to their facilities in the meantime, many major improvements outlined in DRCOG's 1989 plan have either been canceled or put on indefinite hold because of DIA's policy reversal.

Three-thousand-acre Front Range has been the facility most adversely affected. During Adams County's fight with Denver over the location of DIA's cargo facilities, the FAA withdrew more than $25 million in grants from Front Range, including $10 million for a control tower and $15 million to expand its three existing runways. Also canceled is a proposed 10,000-foot, east-west runway with precision approach capabilities that would have allowed Front Range to operate concurrently with DIA. Front Range's business had increased 40 percent over the past four years, but DIA's sudden shift could put the brakes on that.

"DIA's policy change has cost us business because aircraft that were going to relocate to us are now going there," says Front Range spokesman Bill Brogoitti. In 1989 DRCOG predicted that 50 percent of Stapleton's general aviation business would move to Front Range; now Front Range stands to gain just a fraction of that.

In anticipation of DIA spillover, Centennial Airport, a publicly owned, 1,360-acre facility near Englewood, added runway navigational aids and upgraded existing airfield pavements to accommodate "the largest of business jets," says manager Don Crandall. Centennial's business has increased 11 percent over the last year; it's currently the 28th busiest airport in the nation. It would be even busier if John Andrews had his way: For the past seven years he's tried to establish a scheduled commercial airline, Centennial Express, at the field. The five-member Centennial board, however, has consistently refused on the grounds that such a change would alter "the entire nature of the airport from general aviation," says Crandall. "It would mean provision for many more passengers, security, parking, etc., and change the character of the airport completely." Instead Centennial's board decided to concentrate on expanding its general aviation business. "So far," says Crandall, "we have picked up twenty aircraft based at Stapleton and expect to get more." Still, he concedes, Centennial would be busier yet if DIA wasn't welcoming general aviation operations. DRCOG had predicted that Jefferson County's 633-acre, publicly owned airport would be one of the big winners once Stapleton shut down. The newly modernized facility is well positioned to pick up some of Denver's business; located just sixteen miles northwest of the State Capitol, Jeffco will soon be the airport with the shortest drive time to downtown. (There's even talk that Southwest Airlines may begin direct flights between the Jeffco airport and such cities as Los Angeles and Phoenix.)

Since 1989 the Jeffco airport has spent $12 million on improvements, including building a new, $3.4 million terminal, adding a $2.7 million hangar and a smaller hangar, and constructing a 7,000-foot, $3 million runway. The main runway has also been lengthened to 9,000 feet. Canceled, however, are plans to extend another runway to comply with federal standards; without a major portion of Stapleton's private aviation business, Jeffco won't need it. Although Vance Brand Airport--a publicly owned facility outside Longmont named for a Colorado astronaut--had hoped for a piece of Stapleton's action, the airport already has almost too much business to handle. Its air traffic has increased 16 percent over the past four years, but its equipment purchases haven't kept pace. Controllers at Vance Brand, who coordinate a number of regional private and commercial flights, blame a rash of near-collisions on inferior equipment. "Our radar equipment is so bad the aircraft appear to move backwards," complains one controller. "Our [radio] frequencies fail on a daily basis, putting hundreds of lives at stake."

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