Despite downturn, Casper airport plans to grow

Arno Rosenfeld 307-266-0634, arno.rosenfeld@trib.com
Airport hangar

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  • Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune

People gather under the raised door of a new spec hangar during its grand opening Aug 1. at the Casper/Natrona County International Airport. The structure offers 10,000 square feet of hangar and 2,000 square feet of office space.

The new 10,000-square-foot hangar sits to the left of the main terminal at Casper-Natrona County International Airport, awaiting a permanent tenant. It comes with a 7.5-ton bridge crane and climate-controlled office, just waiting to be customized.

“I don’t know of any airport that’s actually built a spec hangar to look for business,” airport director Glenn Januska said.

But Casper has. It is a symbol of optimism, despite an economic downturn that Januska said has depressed passenger numbers by 10 percent from this time last year.

The airport released a master plan in June that projects passenger growth will more than double from fewer than 100,000 annual boardings today to 228,000 by 2032. To meet that demand, the airport plans to increase the number of gates from two to four, open a second level to boarding and retrofit the airport’s facade with a proposed two-story curved glass wall overlooking the runways.

In an era when regional airports are losing flight service and some are shuttering altogether, Casper’s aggressive growth plan may seem surprising.

The recession and high fuel prices led airlines to cut service to smaller markets, said Massachusetts Institute of Technology air transportation expert Michael D. Wittman. Despite an economic recovery and dropping fuel costs, much of the service has not returned.

“We’ve seen many fewer flights to smaller communities,” Wittman said. “A market that was served four or five times a day will now be served two or three times a day.”

Cheyenne Regional Airport has struggled to maintain the 10,000 boardings necessary to keep its federal funding level. Riverton Regional Airport boardings have dropped by 13,000 in 2013 to 3,800 last year.

New federal regulations have also led to service reductions, Wittman said. After the 2009 Colgan Air crash in New York, which killed all 49 passengers and crew, the Federal Aviation Administration increased the number of training hours pilots of small commercial aircraft must complete.

Since then it has been difficult for small airlines, which overwhelmingly serve smaller regional airports, to attract pilots due to the low salaries.

Given those factors, Wittman cautioned that new construction alone would not attract new carriers and routes.

“A lot of airport people sort of think, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he said. “Market economics are what drive airline expansion these days.”

But the reduction in service to many smaller airports may increase market demand for regional airports like Casper’s. Since the nearest major international airport is in Denver, many people from around the region might drive to Casper as service to their local airports is cut.

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“As the outskirt, smaller airports retract their air service, it helps Casper grow a stronger base of more passengers,” said Michael Becker of RS&H, the aviation consultants who created the master plan.

Becker said that compared with cities such as Gillette, Casper has a diverse economy that shelters it from economic instability and keeps passenger numbers relatively consistent. He also noted that economic ups and downs were built into the plan and that while maintenance like repaving the tarmac will be unaffected by passenger growth, other elements include trigger points. If the growth projections don’t come through, for example, expansion of the security screening point, boarding areas, baggage claim and parking lots can be postponed.

“What we do is identify: Yep, if this trend continues, growth of certain facilities on the airport are going to need to be modified and improved,” Becker said. “You don’t want to make the improvement after you’ve already hit capacity.”

Ensuring passengers are accommodated at Casper’s airport may reduce the chances of locals driving to Denver to catch a flight.

“Being ahead of the curve really allows airlines to provide their passengers the best service, which helps with increasing passenger loyalty to their local airport,” Wittman said.

Januska, the airport director, said there was already a need to increase accommodations. During the holidays, overflow parking lots have to be created. There are also periods when hundreds of people are waiting in the departure lounge.

“We don’t even have 200 chairs,” Januska said.

While more chairs are on the list of improvements, Januska said passengers are unlikely to notice much of the other early work, such as the tarmac repavement. But despite the decrease in passengers this year, there was no reason to delay the improvements.

“Every existing problem will get worse,” he said.

The master plan is broken down into three phases. The first runs through 2020 and is estimated to cost $48.7 million. The next five years are budgeted at $25.2 million and the final 10 years of the project at $38.7 million for a total price tag of nearly $113 million.

But Januska said it is impossible to project airport operations 20 years into the future and that the plan is likely to be updated within the next 10 years.

The FAA requires master plans from airports that receive federal funding, as Casper’s does. Januska said the goal is to ensure federal dollars are being spent efficiently and with a view toward long-term growth.

The airport receives $1.3 million annually, tied to passenger numbers, from the FAA but will be applying for special grants from a discretionary federal fund that airports can draw on to make major improvements, Januska said.

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