Competing with DIA

Seeking passenger seating, Front Range Airport pushes to offer low-fare service


Front Range Airport is seeking to bring scheduled passenger air service to the small general aviation airport located just 5 miles southeast of Denver International Airport.

If Front Range, which is owned by Adams County, succeeds in luring low-fare passenger service, it might encourage some existing carriers at DIA to migrate to the smaller neighbor with lower operating costs.

That could create competition for DIA, the nation's fifth-largest airport, which just got low-fare leader Southwest Airlines service in January 2006.

"DIA is the only airport in the world that can expand like it can; it's a crown jewel," said DIA deputy manager Sally Covington. "Why do anything to harm it?"

Front Range aviation director Dennis Heap said his airport is responding to demands from carriers.

Skybus Airlines, a new national discount passenger airline, inquired last year about operating at Front Range, Heap said, adding that the carrier seeks out lower-cost, "secondary" airports.

Even though Front Range had a long-standing policy of not seeking passenger flights, Skybus' inquiry "opened our eyes" about the possibility that passenger service could drive the airport's growth, Heap said.

"I know of 11 carriers out there we could accommodate," he said.

Last week, Front Range's board voted to pursue passenger airlines, overturning a 15-year policy.

In 1992, Adams County and Denver officials signed a pact that said, among other things, Front Range would not pursue scheduled passenger service and instead focus on general aviation and cargo flights.

Adams officials rescinded the agreement shortly after it was signed and the county contends the pact's provisions are no longer in force.

"We are extremely comfortable that there is nothing to prohibit Front Range Airport from seeking passenger service," said Robert Loew, an attorney with the Denver law firm Fairfield and Woods, which represents the Front Range Airport Authority. Loew is a former Adams County attorney.

Changes in the airline industry that have encouraged more flying by regional jets and high-performance turboprops favor the launch of service at secondary airports such as Front Range, Heap said.

He said the airport would target carriers with planes weighing up to 130,000 pounds - allowing aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and comparable narrow body jets such as the Airbus 319.

Skybus, which flies the Airbus 319, operates from about 20 airports around the country, promoting what it says are "outrageously low fares - starting with at least 10 seats at $10 on every flight."

Front Range would have to strengthen its two 8,000-foot-long runways with an asphalt overlay to accommodate frequent passenger service with the Boeing 737 or Airbus 319.

The airport would also need to construct a passenger terminal and develop security systems, including passenger screening areas.

Once Front Range gets a request for service from an airline, the airport would need certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate scheduled passenger flights with planes of more than 30 seats, Heap said.

DIA officials say a move by Front Range to start passenger service would put the two airports in competition for FAA support and funding.

"We're all competing for limited federal funds," said DIA manager Turner West. "Diluting (the amount of available airport funding) would not be good public policy."

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