Defining a Direction

DENVER — Front Range Airport (FTG) was the last general aviation airport to be constructed in Colorado, and over the last 26 years has developed infrastructure capable of accommodating large aircraft.

Comments executive director of aviation Dennis Heap, “Our full potential was not realized as FAA held our runway strength down because of concerns Denver International Airport (DEN) had about FTG opening the airport to scheduled airline service.”

For the last two years, relates Heap, the airport has been assisted by Colorado Aeronautics and has worked with DEN towards developing a plan for FTG that was complimentary to the Denver Airport System.

FTG is one of three relievers to DEN (others are Centennial and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan) and the airport is 27 years-old, yet some 20 years behind the other relievers in terms of surrounding development, says Heap.

“We are probably one of the more self-sufficient airports you’ll find ... part of that is our nature, and part is out of necessity. We operate the cafe, constructed and maintain the ATC tower, the FBO — and we keep doing things like that. We do it because we have to until we get the kind of growth we want; until the private sector comes in and starts taking things over.”

Development study

Early last year aviation consultancy SH&E undertook a study here focused on identifying compatible business development strategies. Completed in August, the study articulated reasons the airport has not realized some growth goals, and identified opportunities thought to be achievable.

Air cargo and scheduled passenger service were identified as non-attainable; however, the upper end of general aviation, military, and aircraft storage were identified as target opportunities, explains Heap.

“Front Range began as a GA airport and was going to become a cargo mecca,” he says. “At one point, both FedEx and UPS had signed to be here, and FAA started putting money into the airport [in the early ‘90s].

“All of that was coming together, but due to cost overruns and other issues, cargo went back to DEN; FAA stopped developing for that.”

What happened eventually, says Heap, is DEN started working with Front Range. The business development plan, funded by the state (a joint-venture with oversight by DEN and Front Range Airport) asked: What does the facility become so it is a benefit to the Denver Airport System without hurting scheduled service at DEN?

The study determined that FTG is positioned for three growth areas:

1) Alternative for business aircraft presently using DEN for transient fuel stops and ski traffic;

2) Military; and

3) Aircraft storage, including maintenance repair & overhaul (MRO), aircraft painting, aircraft scrapping, and aircraft assembly.

According to Heap, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) identifies the area south of DEN and north of I-70 to Front Range as the growth area for industrial, manufacturing, and flex distribution for the metropolitan area.

A primary advantage for FTG is its location and footprint, relates Heap. “FTG is unique in the metropolitan area as it is the only general aviation airport without major nearby residential areas,” he says. “It also has no bonded indebtedness and consequently, users pay low facility and land lease fees. The Airport’s 3,339 acres makes FTG larger than all other general aviation airports in the area combined.”

Leveraging DEN

FTG is an airport-operated FBO, and a large part of its growth strategy is in capturing business and corporate aviation traffic that utilize DEN. “For us to operate the airport for GA,” says Heap, “we can’t grow a facility like this by just relying on piston-engine aircraft activity; not in this economic environment.

“Our future is in serving business aviation ... and part of that is, we are right next to DEN — what happens is there are connections between general aviation and the scheduled airlines there.”

Front Range Airport maintains vehicles specifically dedicated to shuttling customers to and from DEN and approved hotels. Says Heap, “The shuttle service to DEN helps us capture that corporate traffic; it’s an 18 minute ride. We’re not going to get the corporate airplanes going into Centennial or Rocky Mountain; they are over there because they’re going to the Denver Tech Center, and that side of town.”

During the Christmas holidays, the airport fills up with aircraft, he adds. “It’s all overflow from Aspen and Eagle; what they are doing is taking passengers up to the mountains, and the pilots come back here — we shuttle them to DEN to fly home and they leave the airplane with us.

“That’s part of our strategy — to capitalize on that dynamic relationship between general aviation and scheduled airline service at DEN.”

One thing the airport needs to develop, relates Heap, is the FBO terminal facility. Built more than twenty years ago, plans are in place for a facelift. The airport will take a page from NetJets’ standards and requirements manual for its own customer service facilities.

Comments Heap, “A number of carriers, NetJets and such, have told us the airport is great ... air traffic control, the runways, etc; but our terminal is not to their standards.

“So we are going to get the terminal to their standards, and we will have that done by the middle of this year.”

Additional Opportunities

“Aircraft storage is perhaps the most interesting of our current endeavors as forecasts show that 700 50-seat regional jets will be parked between now and 2015,” explains Heap. “We have enough paved ramp to park 180 regional jets.

“A key to this market is to have the infrastructure needed — hangars for maintenance facilities, large amounts of land to develop more parking, and then to take aircraft storage to the next step: parts, scrapping, and salvage.”

Increased military operations is another major potential growth driver for FTG, says Heap. Annual military operations were at 585 here in 2008; 2009 saw 411 total operations. Last year, however, the airport logged 1,180 military operations — an increase of 187 percent.

The airport has a capital improvement plan in place for 2011 valued at some $5.2 million. The funds will be used to purchase ARFF equipment; install an electrical upgrade and conduct an environmental review on Runway 17/35 to increase its strength; perform an overlay on Runway 8/26; and to construct a snow removal equipment building.

The airport is also currently in the process of establishing an oil and gas lease. “The signing bonus is so much an acre … and that’s how we plan to fund the terminal,” relates Heap.

“We also farm dry-land wheat here. Airports need to look at a lot of different revenue sources.”