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Northern Colorado airport tackles flight-school, shuttle-service issues

LOVELAND — Construction on a $22 million,19,400-square-foot, two-gate terminal at Northern Colorado Regional Airport is continuing on schedule, the airport’s governing commission was told Thursday. However, issues related to that construction and the terminal itself are posing problems for flight schools at the airport and a popular shuttle bus service that has already seen a key part of its plan put on hold.

A short “crosswind” runway at the airport, frequently used by students at flight schools housed at the airport, has been closed because the placement of a construction trailer has made a portion of it no longer visible to the airport’s control tower.

Meanwhile, the construction has forced The Landline Co., which runs shuttle buses to and from Denver International Airport, to move its pick-up and drop-off location away from the existing terminal and cost it more than 100 nearby parking spots. 

The issue with the flight schools was raised by Kelly Freeland, owner of The Flight School at the airport, who asked commissioners and interim airport director David Ruppel whether the airport had plans to move the construction trailer “so we can once again have a ‘crosswind’ runway “

The trailer’s placement “is disallowing the control trailer to visually see the runway, and it’s really becoming a hazard for our student pilots at the flight school here,” Freeland said. “Now we have no option for them if they’re up in the air and it becomes an unsafe condition. I don’t believe the placement of a temporary construction trailer, despite the fact that it already might be hooked up to sewer and water, justifies closing our runway and causing disruption in our businesses. I don’t believe that’s the only spot it could be.

“Right now we’re losing out on the best flying months of our entire year.”

Ruppel responded that, “when the terminal ‘goes vertical’ in a couple months, it’s going to block that view as well,” and that the Federal Aviation Administration “has to go through a safety risk management review to evaluate what the impacts are going to be there and how they want to handle it. We’ve asked them to be able to use the runway but have a ‘displaced threshold’ on the end so that last 700 feet would be at the pilot’s discretion.

“Now, with the whole thing closed, if the pilot needs to use that,” Ruppel said, “then they just have to declare an emergency and use that. They always have the ability to do that.

“The other piece of it,” he said, “is that once we get back to the certification process with the remote tower, then full visibility is recovered at that point because the remote tower isn’t impacted by that line-of-sight issue, just the mobile tower.”

The FAA has put a stop-work order on that experimental remote control tower while technical issues are addressed,  and commissioners remain unsure when or if it will win final FAA approval.

Freeland bristled at the suggestion that students could simply declare an emergency to be allowed to land on the abbreviated runway, as did commissioner Jerry Stooksbury, himself a flight instructor, and general-aviation aircraft owners’ representative Rick Turley.

“We impress on our students that when they declare an emergency, it’s a really big deal,” Freeland said. “They don’t want to be met by fire trucks.”

All they’d need to do, Ruppel said, would be to tell the tower, “There’s nothing wrong with the aircraft; I’m just outside of what I’m comfortable with as far as a crosswind landing is concerned.”

Freeland said that just wouldn’t work. “To ask a novice student to do that on their own is not a good situation,” she said.

“I can’t declare an emergency for training, and you’re asking my students to not only declare an emergency as a solo student, which is uncomfortable enough, but also to land on a short, narrow runway that they have never been on,” she said. “And that’s our only option because of a construction trailer? I think we’re all hoping that by the time the terminal is done, we’ll have a remote tower that will do away with the whole issue. If the remote tower’s not done by the time the terminal is finished, we’ll have a whole ’nother slew of problems. Shortening the runway {to where it’s visible from the mobile tower} is not a permanent solution.”

“This is a big deal, and this is a hell of a surprise,” Stooksbury said. “Here again, we’ve got our [general-aviation] population, which we haven’t shown a lot of love to. This should be a full meeting, I don’t like a displaced threshold on a runway that’s almost too short anyway. This is not a 15-minute discussion. This is an action item that says how are we going to address this. It needs to be a pilot town-hall forum. We need to get them in here and explain all of this to them and make them comfortable with this. The time to get comfortable with it is not when you’re up in the air, thinking, ‘OK, this is my only option, and do I use the e-word or not, and am I going to have to fill out a lot of paperwork.’

“I had no idea this is why the runway was closed,” Stooksbury said, “and I should have known why.

“This is thunderstorm season. Winds change on a dime for no apparent reason. We have students who are no longer being able to train on that runway, student pilots, the greenest pilots, and when that situation happens, we’re now going to ask them to declare an emergency — and good luck trying to do it the first time.

“Everything about that sounds like a bad plan,” he said. “If we’re going to address it administratively, then yes, let’s do that, sooner rather than later. But we need that crosswind runway, and we need operationally for it not to be an emergency when it has to be used. There’s got to be a procedural way to address this.”

Turley added that “it’s intimidating to look at that runway. It’s narrow, it’s short, there’s a lot of buildings around it. It’s a challenge.”

Ruppel said he hoped to address the issue in meetings next week with the FAA.

The Landline Co. also had a request for the airport: Reduce the fees you charge us.

The shuttle service had hoped, through a partnership with United Airlines, to offer secure Transportation Security Administration check-ins at Northern Colorado Regional Airport so that passengers could avoid the long security lines at DIA. It already has won TSA approval for such a service between Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia International Airport. 

However, TSA has yet to approve placing a security checkpoint either at the old or new terminal in Northern Colorado because the airport jointly owned by the cities of Loveland and Fort Collins has no scheduled passenger airline service — and part of the reason it doesn’t is related to safety issues related to the control-tower issues.

Landline thus is forced to operate as a traditional shuttle service, and the fees the airport charges it were altered accordingly by a contract amendment approved Thursday to help it become more profitable and competitive with Fort Collins-based Groome Transportation, formerly GreenRide, which also provides shuttle service from the Northern Colorado airport to DIA.

The fees the airport had charged Landline — $25 per departure and $4.50 per passenger — had been based on its secure-to-secure business plan. Since that’s not happening, the new agreement approved by the commission will have Landline pay $12 per departure for the first eight departures and $10 per each subsequent departure. Those new fees will extend through 2024 unless TSA finally approves Landline’s secure service. Either way, the original rates will resume in 2025.

Groome is charged no fees for departures or passengers at Northern Colorado Regional Airport, but it pays an annual land lease of $48,800.

Source: BizWest