Thu September 20, 2012

Improvements Still On the Radar for Northern Colorado Airport

Efforts to build a control tower and extend a runway at the Fort Collins-Loveland airport are expected to pick up following the announced departure of Allegiant Airlines.

KUNC’s Erin O’Toole spoke with Northern Colorado Business Report Publisher Jeff Nuttall about what might be coming.

O’Toole: We’ve heard about the prospect of a control tower and longer runway at the airport for a number of years. Why is this issue back on radar screens?

Jeff Nuttall: Well, you’re right, officials have wanted to build those improvements for years. They have sought federal funding for the projects, but lower traffic counts have kept the airport from receiving any aid — so far.

O’Toole: Well, there will certainly be lower traffic counts without Allegiant Air, right?

Nuttall: Indeed, if the airport can’t find another commercial carrier. Allegiant was the airport’s sole carrier and it accounted for nearly all of its traffic.

O’Toole: Allegiant’s departure came as a surprise to a lot of people, didn’t it?

Nuttall: That’s right, Erin. Traffic counts looked really good. The number of passengers who had boarded planes at the airport increased 26 percent year over year, to nearly 45,000 last year. Allegiant passengers represented 95 percent of that total.

Allegiant told city officials the airline was leaving based on an “internal business decision.” The airline has not commented further, so it’s not clear why it pulled out.

O’Toole: True, the airline has been pretty tight-lipped about its decision. So -- back to the control tower and extended runway. Why are these things important to the airport?

Nuttall: A tower would improve safety for a commercial airline as well as general aviation. Pilots, as you might imagine, prefer landing and taking off from airports with control towers, while a longer runway can make takeoffs for heavier planes easier.

O’Toole: Absolutely. So who is talking about these features at the airport?

Nuttall: Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat believes that discussions need to be initiated. Loveland Mayor Cecil Gutierrez said that officials could move forward with more urgency on a process that’s already under way to study improvements. In other words, a lot of the area’s political leaders seem to want to take a fresh look at this.

O’Toole: I’d imagine they’re interested in how much all this could cost?

Nuttall: A tower could cost $3 million to $5 million to build and another $500,000 annually to staff. Extending the airport’s 8,500-foot runway by 1,000 feet would cost about $5 million.

O’Toole: We just heard about a $7 million FAA grant that Denver International is getting to rehabilitate a runway. Is there still an opportunity for the Ft. Collins-Loveland airport to get federal funding for these projects?

Nuttall: Yes, it’s a possibility. The airport was getting closer to the threshold where the Federal Aviation Administration would fund a tower. Of course, that was before Allegiant decided to leave.

O’Toole: What does the airport stand to lose financially from Allegiant’s departure?

Nuttall: It’s a lot of money, Erin. The airport stands to lose 85 percent of its $1 million in annual funding from the FAA.

O’Toole: What does the business community say about improvements to the airport?

Nuttall: Well, among others, OtterBox CEO Brian Thomas told us he believes that a control tower would offer increased safety and that longer runways would provide long-term benefits to the Fort Collins and Loveland communities. He also points out that the airport is the first impression that many visitors get of our community and that there are opportunities to improve the property so that it better represents Northern Colorado.

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