Small Craft Warnings

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.

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David Chandler