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Global Super Tanker Services is converting this 747 for use as the nation’s largest firefighting plane.

Global Super Tanker Services is converting this 747 for use as the nation’s largest firefighting plane.

Booked a flight lately? If so, you’ve probably noticed the Colorado Springs Airport is alive and well.

That’s in stark contrast to a few years ago. Industry groups like the Airline Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) voiced concern in 2007 when the city began to levy new taxes on aircraft and parts. The move eventually resulted in the loss of about 20 percent of flights originating in Colorado Springs. 

By 2009, a recessionary economy compounded the situation. General aviation business on the airport’s west side was hard hit. A number of tenants left, causing a further blow to the city-owned property’s bottom line. Over time the 7,200-acre airport with a large general aviation park, the country’s longest runway and promising commercial development, became an under-used asset.

Today is a very different story. 

Creation of a Commercial Aeronautical Zone or CAZ in 2014 on airport land has led to a visible turnaround. The CAZ was put in place – the result of collaboration by the city, El Paso County, the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority (PPRTA) and the state – to provide tax abatement and economic incentives to aviation-related companies. Once adopted, officials hoped the city would attract new general and corporate aviation businesses and additional airlines, as well as increased aircraft boardings. 

Initial results are impressive. This May – a month before Frontier Airlines announced new direct flights to Phoenix and Orlando – Aviation Director Dan Gallagher reported a 5 percent lift in enplanements (the aviation term for boardings). And general aviation revenues had begun to climb. 

In a report to stakeholders this summer, the chief executive was upbeat. “From the first real growth in air service in nearly 10 years, to having every square inch of Airport owned, ramp and facilities rented out, to maintaining the highest level of customer service and maintenance standards, our Team has gone above and beyond … I continue to be impressed.”

Gallagher, who served as Interim Director in 2013 before assuming his current post is focused on cutting expenses and on increasing commercial carrier and general aviation revenues. His efforts are paying off. So far, operating costs are down 25 percent, and airline fees have been reduced by 50 percent. 

“That’s how we compete with Centennial (Airport) or DIA – by telling the airlines ‘Here’s how we can make you more profitable,’” he explains. 

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers credits Gallagher – a former aviation business executive – with providing key guidance at a critical moment. “Dan knows the airlines – their cost structures, labor contract requirements and what attracts them.”

In 2013, prior to enacting tax incentives, Colorado Springs was charging about $13 per seat enplanement fees with Denver at $15 to $16 per seat. “Since 2014 when the CAZ kicked in, we’ve been able to lower that fee to $6.28 – and that may drop even lower in the next couple of years,” the Mayor says, adding that the city is now more attractive to carriers. 

Calling the airport’s general aviation growth “its best success story,” Suthers notes that since the CAZ was put in place, Sierra Nevada Corporation has announced plans to open the Sierra Completions Center. “Sierra, alone, could create 2,000 jobs. And we may seal a deal with a couple more manufacturers in the next few months,” he adds.

Gallagher estimates roughly $100 million in new construction is underway or on the horizon. Projects include Cutter Aviation’s new executive terminal, new hangars for Rampart Aviation and Sierra Nevada Corporation and expansion of a hangar complex. The airport has also leased hangar space to Global Super Tanker Services LLC, which is converting and equipping a Boeing 747 – the nation’s largest firefighting plane – to fight wildfires. 

Dick Janitell, owner of JHW Hangar Enterprises and Pikes Peak Aviation praises the local airport’s new economic focus. “There’s no downside to us as taxpayers,” he says, noting that it will take only 40 new jobs a year to offset aeronautics-related tax losses. “And we accomplished that in the first year.” 

JHW built and leases a hangar facility to Rampart Aviation, a large commercial aircraft manufacturer with military and energy industry clients. The company relocated to the Colorado Springs Airport from North Carolina in 2015. Janitell had tried for years to convince CEO Tony Porterfield to move his operation. “Tony lived here, but before the CAZ, it was just too expensive,” he says. 

The Aviation industry’s response has been swift and clear: Colorado Springs Airport is back on its radar. In December 2014, AOPA weighed in with the following post:

“A Colorado city that once touched off an “exodus” of general aviation aircraft … by taxing aircraft, parts, and related equipment has reversed course, bringing new businesses, jobs, and economic opportunity into the community.” 

In other words, it looks like COS is “cleared for take-off.”