Rifle airport anticipates flight boost

Donna GrayGlenwood Springs correspondentAspen, CO Colorado
Line service technician Brittney VanderZee directs an airplane at the Garfield County Airport Wednesday in Rifle. The airport expects to see a 50 percent increase in traffic as a result of the temporary closure of Aspen/Pitkin County Airport from April 9 to June 7. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent)

RIFLE The Garfield County Airport in Rifle will get a boost in business with the temporary closure of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, starting next month.The Aspen airport will close from April 9 until June 7 for runway reconstruction.”We’re expecting operations to be up about 50 percent,” said Justin Carver, manager of the Rifle Jet Center, the fixed base operator which provides fueling and maintenance services at the airport. He said owners of about 20 planes from Aspen have said they will relocate to Rifle while the Aspen airport is closed.Commercial airlines will not be diverting to Rifle because it’s not equipped to handle commercial flights. Not that it didn’t cross airport director Brian Condie’s mind.”We looked at going commercial for Aspen’s closure,” Condie said. But the move would have cost the county “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in safety upgrades. Nor were the airlines willing to foot the bill.Airlines will provide service based on a rule of thumb that passengers have to travel no more than a two and a half hours to an airport, Condie said. Within that radius on the Western Slope are Walker Field in Grand Junction and the Eagle County Airport.”It’s not like we aren’t large enough or couldn’t accommodate [the airlines],” Condie said. “Our niche is not commercial but general [private] aviation.”United Airlines has said it will boost service to the Eagle County Airport during the Aspen shutdown.Business is growing at the Rifle airport even without the boost that’s expected from Aspen’s closure. It is established as an alternative when dicey weather makes landing in Aspen difficult.A growing number of pilots also are basing their aircraft in Rifle because of the more trouble-free landing, including being able to land at night – which is not allowed in Aspen – and the availability of hangar space.”The Aspen [airport] approach is really unpredictable … and dangerous,” said Bob Wooldridge, a businessman from the San Francisco Bay area who has owned a home in Snowmass since the 1980s. “Rifle has a nice long runway and it’s safe.”Wooldridge is planning to build a hangar for his Cessna CJ1 jet at Rifle. He also likes the service he gets there. “The real plus for the Rifle airport is Brian Condie. He’s very dedicated and a great manager to work with.”Condie is also steering the airport into major expansion. Plans are afoot for a $30 million upgrade of the airport’s 7,000-foot runway and a radar system that will allow Denver’s flight center to keep track of aircraft at all altitudes. Currently, planes coming into Rifle are lost to Denver radar below 10,000 feet, Condie said.Also looking to expand is the Interagency Fire Management Center, which houses federal firefighting equipment and staff at the county airport. This year, the Bureau of Land Management will base its air tankers there, as well as a Chinook Skycrane helicopter.”They’re trying to make this a bigger base” for their operations, Condie said. the BLM would also like the county to front about $300,000 for two new helipads, a cost which the county would recoup in lease payments.Expanded space for crew will be included in a new administration office building that will also accommodate Condie and his staff.