Where does a $5 billion gorilla sit? Wherever it wants to.
Among the giant Denver International Airport's latest victims are regional airports that have been forced to delay or cancel improvements--all because of an unpublicized DIA policy shift. And at least one of those airports, Longmont's Vance Brand, is badly in need of those improvements: Its equipment is so outmoded that the radar screens show planes flying backward. Denver's new airport was built on the premise--and the promise--that it would concentrate on commercial airlines and not house or even service private aircraft. That meant that once Stapleton shut down--as it must on the day DIA opens, according to the city's contracts with its airline tenants--all general aviation business would move to the area's regional airports. Those airports expected to inherit millions of dollars' worth of business from corporate jets and private planes that currently use Stapleton, and began planning accordingly.
But DIA abruptly reversed its policy regarding private aviation. Denver's new airport now plans to compete directly with Adams County's Front Range Airport, as well as a half-dozen other metropolitan facilities. "A policy reversal was made by airport planners some time before I came aboard last spring," says Denver aviation director Jim DeLong. "The decision to include general aviation was made--although I'm not familiar with how that decision was made."
He's not alone. In fact, several managers of the region's smallest airports were unaware that DIA had made the decision until they were contacted by Westword. And they weren't pleased by the news.
Although airport officials are vague as to why the policy was changed, timing is everything: The switch was made in the middle of the battle between Denver and Adams County officials over DIA's configuration.
Denver International Airport was made possible only after Adams County, which borders Denver on the north and east, agreed to let the city annex the 54-square-mile site back in 1988. In exchange, then-Mayor Federico Pena agreed to build DIA's multimillion-dollar air cargo facility at the northern end of the airport, giving Adams County access to expanded business opportunities and its residents access to new jobs. By 1992, however, carriers including Federal Express and United Parcel Service had decided that DIA's cargo facility was too far from major highways and would be too costly to use. Instead they began negotiating to bring their business to publicly owned Front Range Airport, only three miles east of DIA. To defeat that move, DIA agreed to shift its cargo facilities from the north to the south end of the airport, where the carriers would have access to I-70 and other highways. DIA was so eager to keep the cargo business that it paid $63 million to move the facilities, and authorized another $100 million in related construction changes. Adams County claimed the relocation was illegal, and started a series of lawsuits that have been winding their way through the courts ever since.
But the relocation brought Denver something other than lawsuits: general aviation contracts. In the process of moving a number of utility and fuel lines to the south end of DIA, Denver opened the door to private aviation operations.
By changing its policy last spring, DIA was able to sign a lucrative twenty-year lease with AMR Combs, which services most of the private jets, turboprops and business aircraft based at Stapleton. "The decision to reverse the policy was made by Denver during the Adams County thing--when they decided to move air cargo facilities from the north end of DIA to the south end," says Combs vice president Jack Browning. "That move opened up the southern area of DIA to general aviation and made it feasible for our location." The Houston-based Combs company had planned to shift its current Stapleton operations to Front Range and Centennial Airport, a private aviation facility south of Denver where Combs already does substantial business.
As part of its inducement package to lure Combs to DIA, the city awarded the company an exclusive $22 million contract to provide de-icing services for all aircraft, commercial and private, at the new Denver airport.
But Combs says it will be doing its bit for DIA, too. "We figure we will be bringing some $35 million in annual gross revenues to DIA with our corporate jets and other business," says Browning. Of that gross, DIA will net more than $2 million from landing fees, fuel sales and other business, he adds. Combs has also committed to spending $8.5 million on an executive aircraft terminal, a vehicle service building and private aviation hangars at DIA.
And Combs's crafts won't be the only private airplanes operating out of DIA. Denver's new airport is now actively wooing general aviation business.
"One obvious benefit for us in the change," DeLong explains, "is that the big private planes will bring in more revenue for us and reduce the costs of airport operations--which, of course, are paid by the airlines and, ultimately, by the passengers."
As a first step, DIA will be home to about seventy private jets and large, corporate planes serviced by Combs once Stapleton closes. "However, we probably will never provide hangar space for single-engine aircraft," DeLong says.
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.
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"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."
FAA spokesman Mitch Barker confirms that four "air separations"--or potential collisions--were reported at Longmont during December. He agrees, too, that the airport's radar screens often show planes "flying backwards" and that its radio breaks down frequently. "But we have backup systems," Barker adds, "so the situation is not as extreme as suggested." The FAA is in a "process nationally of upgrading our equipment," he continues, "but it takes time and money." In the meantime, Vance Brand has canceled plans to extend its one 4,800-foot concrete runway because "of neighborhood opposition," says manager Catherine Bauer Wissner. Also nixed is a proposed expansion of the airport's taxiway system. DIA's private aviation policy shift "has definitely hurt our business," says Tri-County Airport manager John Hurd. In anticipation of increased traffic, the privately owned, 147-acre facility 23 miles north of downtown had added a 4,700-foot runway. Now it will have to scramble to keep it busy; Tri-County's business has dropped 6 percent in four years. Boulder Municipal Airport--a publicly owned, 135-acre facility--recently added an improved taxiway system and a paved parking apron, the better to accommodate traffic that has increased 30 percent since 1989. Although no construction plans have been canceled because of DIA's policy shift, the airport doesn't rule that out. Says manager Roy Grundy, "DIA's new policy is so new we're going to have to analyze how it is going to affect us." Until then, the regional airports--like everyone else affected by Denver International Airport--will be playing the waiting game.