Sunday, October 28, 2012

Countdown on for Allegiant's final flight: Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport (KFNL), Colorado


LOVELAND — — Darby Hoggatt and his son, Jett, stood in line Thursday, ready to board their second flight to Las Vegas in the last 30 days. It’s the last time in the foreseeable future they’ll be able to get on that plane here. 

 Allegiant Air, the only commercial airline serving the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport, will cease flights from Northern Colorado on Monday, nine years after it set up operations in Loveland and two years after it added flights to the Phoenix area.

“It just sucks. Las Vegas has a lot of baseball tournaments this time of year,” said Darby Hoggatt, a Fort Collins resident. His son plays outfield, catcher and pitches for Team Colorado and was en route to another tournament.

Allegiant announced, without explanation, in August it was pulling its planes from Fort Collins-Loveland. Weeks later airline officials said it was ceasing flights due to safety concerns because the airport does not have a control tower. But, airport officials said in all of their dealings with Allegiant, the Las Vegas-based destination airline had never expressed concerns about the lack of a control tower.

Airport officials are conducting an investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration to see if any safety concerns have been documented with the agency, Airport Director Jason Licon said Thursday.

“There haven’t been any changes at our airport since 2003 when Allegiant first started operation. I don’t see (the tower) argument as being valid,” he said. “However, we just have to wait and see what the data shows.”

Because the airport doesn’t have a control tower, “we don’t talk to the pilots. The FAA would be the ones that would have any indication whether there have been any near-miss occurrences or something like that that you look for when safety becomes an issue.”

Licon said the airport does everything it takes to run efficiently, effectively and safely. “If we knew there was a problem we would fix it. Allegiant is very important to our airport and serving the people that utilize that within the region.”

Full planes

On Thursday, passengers bemoaned the loss of Fort Collins-Loveland’s only regularly scheduled air service.

“It seems like they are 97 percent full — they have to be making money,” said Hoggatt, who was spot-on regarding the airline’s local passenger load.

Through August, Allegiant flights were on average 97 percent full, the highest passenger load in the company’s nine years here. As passenger loads and the number of flights increased, so, too, did the aspirations of airport officials who hoped Allegiant would add more destinations and flights.

Instead, Allegiant blindsided local officials with its decision to suspend operations at Fort Collins-Loveland.

Still, Allegiant’s success gives airport leadership reason to be optimistic about landing another commercial airline, Licon said. “We are treating this as a temporary issue.”

The airport has put in $30 million in improvements since 2003 when Allegiant first started flying out of Loveland, thanks to grants and other funding it was able to get by having Allegiant here, Licon said. “That puts us in an even better position than we were in in 2001. We are confident we will be able to find someone to serve this area.”

But how long that might take is uncertain. “It takes a lot of convincing to make an airline make a multimillion-dollar decision to add a stop,” Licon said. “There are a lot of technical changes and additions and ticketing and adding other destinations. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scene to make that happen.”

So, on Monday morning, about 20 minutes before noon, Licon will watch, at least temporarily, commercial air service at Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport disappear into the sky with Allegiant’s last flight.

Convenient, close

Dane Wygmans of Fort Collins was heading to Vegas on Thursday for an annual get-together with friends. “I am super bummed ... I love the prices. I love the convenience.”

Wygmans booked his flight before Allegiant pulled the plug and was a bit worried the airline might be gone before he got his trip in. Like most other passengers on Thursday’s flight, he’ll be back Sunday, a day before Allegiant’s final takeoff.

Ruth and Roger Beitel of Scottsbluff, Neb., were headed to Vegas for the Professional Bull Riders World Finals. With granddaughters, Isabelle, 20 months, and Addilyn, 3, in tow, Ruth Beitel said traveling out of Loveland offered a shorter drive, convenient parking and short security lines.

“It’s quicker and closer to Scottsbluff,” she said. “It only takes two hours to get here.”

Passengers aren’t the only ones affected by Allegiant’s departure. The airline’s ground support crew of about seven will lose their jobs and TSA agents will be rotated back to Denver, Licon said.

And the owners of The Other Side and The Peaks cafe aren’t sure what they’ll do next.

Rose Iversen runs The Other Side and Rose’s Beer Garden at the Allegiant gate, a secure area. Her husband, Zane, runs The Peaks cafe in the unsecured terminal building.

Until another commercial airline comes they will likely have to mothball the restaurant, Rose Iversen said after Allegiant’s Thursday morning departure. Once Allegiant and TSA pull out, the building will no longer be a secured area so they could open the restaurant to the general public but aren’t sure there will be enough business.

“We are trying to decide if it would be worthwhile,” she said. “Even if we could get some of the surrounding businesses and general aviation out here to back us up and eat, have a few beers, we could probably keep this above ground.”

For now, they haven’t made a decision. “It’s a big hit for us to lose this. It was our livelihood,” she said.

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