By S. Clayton Moore
Garfield County Regional Airport (RIL) in Rifle, Colo., was once home to two struggling fixed base operations. It’s now on the verge of a new renaissance with both FBOs now under the same ownership.
Rifle Air LLC was formed by four partners in the Roaring Fork Valley to purchase the two existing airport FBOs in December. Ken Ostrander, CEO of Rifle Air LLC, subsequently merged Corporate Aircraft Services and the former Rifle Jet Center into a single FBO, which will operate under the Rifle Jet Center name.
“We’re taking two average FBOs and creating one first-class FBO,” Ostrander said. “The big problem here was that there just wasn’t enough volume to support both these operations. We saw a real diamond in the rough with huge potential.”
Ostrander learned to fly at 16, starting with sail planes. He got into commercial aviation in 1987, as a flight instructor for FlightSafety International and later flew for United Express.
Ostrander has hired Justin Carver to help run the operation. Carver, an experienced general manager, was formerly with Corporate Aircraft Services and Timberline Aviation. He started his career as a line technician at Weststar Aviation in 1990 and helped open Timberline Aviation at Walker Field in Grand Junction in 1996. He later worked for an oil company in aviation fuel sales until joining Corporate Aircraft Services in March 2005.
Rifle Jet Center now offers fuel services, a FAR Part 145 repair station, charter aircraft and other full-service FBO amenities.
High in the Rockies
Located high on the western slope of Colorado, Garfield County Regional Airport was once a remote and rugged airfield. When Ostrander flew into the airport in the early 1980s, it was little more than a trailer and a fuel truck.
Constructed in the 1920s, it was originally a glider-towing airport. Today, its 7,000-foot runway rivals that of Aspen’s airport, and is poised to become an important regional hub for private, charter and corporate aircraft.
Ostrander has intimate knowledge of the close correlation between the Rifle, Aspen/Snowmass, Eagle/Vail and Grand Junction airports. He worked at Aspen Aviation for 12 years, and amassed a lot of ideas about how he would run this FBO.
The key to Rifle is its accessibility. On peak days, Aspen and Vail airports can each land up to 100 planes in an afternoon. In poor weather, airport diversions on the Western Slope can reach epic proportions, allowing far less aircraft per hour to land in Aspen and Vail. In those conditions, aircraft have to be diverted either to Grand Junction, over 120 miles away from Aspen, or worse, possibly to Centennial, over four hours away. But, of course, there’s always Rifle.
“One of our major goals is to promote our airport to people ultimately heading for Aspen or Eagle/Vail,” Carver said. “This time of year, pilots can fly right into Rifle and avoid having their passengers get stuck in Aspen on crummy days. They can drive straight to Aspen from here in an hour and avoid all the congestion and weather problems.”
In fact, the weather at Garfield County Regional is traditionally better than it is at the destination ski resorts.
“It’s not very challenging, which is good for pilots,” Carver explained. “Traditionally, Rifle has been in what we call the ‘blue donut hole.’ The weather holds up better here than in Aspen, where it’s often below minimums. We have a 7,000-foot runway with an ILS, so we have everything that is required of a decent IFR airport.”
Another key issue in Rifle’s favor is that some aircraft can’t fly into Aspen/Snowmass at night, because of flight curfews or restrictions. That can be a big drawback for demanding passengers, who hope to catch some powder over a weekend.
“You can fly in here at night, and it makes a big difference,” Ostrander explained. “You can fly into Rifle at 8 o’clock on a Friday night and be skiing fresh tracks in Aspen in the morning. We can have a limo pick you up from the restaurant Sunday night and have you back at work on Monday morning. You can’t do that from the other airports.”
Ostrander realizes that the operation still doesn’t have the visibility of the lavish airports in Aspen and Eagle/Vail. He hopes that by raising the level of service at the airport, it will become more than just a supplemental area airport. With major golf courses, luxury homes and a booming oil and gas business all expanding in the area, he just might be right.
“Some people still see Rifle as a mom-and-pop airport; we’re bigger than that now,” Ostrander said. “We saw the potential for a really viable airport that could handle all the diversions, but also become an attractive destination airport. This whole valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction, is exploding.”
Brian Condie, manager of Garfield County Regional, says a shift in the airport’s dynamics is apparent but that the county continues to focus on both important markets.
“Our traffic is still about 60 percent diversion and 40 percent destination,” he said. “While we’re moving towards becoming a destination airport, people would still rather go to Aspen or Vail. Of course, they would rather come to Rifle if they can’t make it to Aspen. Those are our markets and we’re doing everything we can to maximize our attractiveness as both an alternative diversion and a destination.”
Rifle Jet Center has big plans to raise the level of airport service to rival that of Aspen/Snowmass and Eagle/Vail. They recently completed the remodel of their pilot and passenger terminal (formally Corporate Aircraft Services’ facility).
“Basically, we had the two FBOs to choose from, so we got to decide which one we wanted to use to run the FBO,” Carver explained. “We chose to remodel this facility because it accommodated more passengers and it’s also located mid-field.”
One of the FBO’s greatest assets is the space it has available. Rifle Jet Center has more than 87,000 square feet of hangar space, all of it heated. Three Global Express aircraft can fit in its largest hangar, and during the busy winter holidays, the space can fill up fast.
“We started taking reservations in June last year, for hangar space during the holidays,” Carver said. “That’s how popular it is.”
The FBO provides all the traditional services, most importantly fueling. Rifle Jet Center has been designated an Avfuel Avnet Premier fueling facility and fuel sales are expected to grow this year. According to Condie, last year the two former FBO operations sold a combined 1,227,000 gallons of jet fuel and 76,000 gallons of aviation gasoline.
“We’re a little less than Aspen and Eagle/Vail and slightly more than Grand Junction,” Carver said of Rifle’s fuel prices. “You’ll see that we’re very fair with our fuel prices, especially when you consider our geography.”
It also has a Part 145 repair station certificate and a full parts department, while the nearby Duncan satellite facility can accommodate most avionics needs.
Kevin Swenson, at one time director of maintenance for Corporate Aircraft Services, manages the maintenance operations from the former Rifle Jet Center facility. Before joining the FBO, Swenson spent more than 12 years at Pratt & Whitney in Florida, working on engines.
Rifle Jet Center also maintains a Part 135 charter operations certificate. The charter service, billed as “The Flight Department,” is operated out of a 30,000-square-foot hangar, with a flight planning room, pilot’s lounge and covered parking.
Rifle Jet Center employs about 25 staff, including a dozen line and customer service professionals and five maintenance technicians. Its staff can also arrange for luxury amenities, including limousines, fine catering, and other personal flight services.
While the FBO treats all of its customers with the same high level of service, they acknowledge that their status as an Aspen diversion means they sometimes have celebrity guests.
“We see celebrities every day, but we don’t name names,” Carver said. “We’re known for our discretion. While we make the customers that come here feel comfortable, no one is going to gawk. We treat everybody the same, whether it’s a guy in a Piper Cub or a movie star in a jet.”
The FBO’s customers run the range of aviation enthusiasts, from private recreational pilots to heavy corporate traffic.
“We have several first-time pilots, who have gone on to buy airplanes and base them here,” Ostrander observed. “On any given day, you can see a Global Express parked right next to a Piper Cub.”
Better days ahead
All guests of Rifle Jet Center should soon be feeling even more comfortable. Ostrander is developing a five-year plan to augment and improve the facility, to compete more strongly with nearby airports.
“There’s just so much more room for development here,” Ostrander observed. “Aspen has reached its peak in terms of the volume of aircraft that it can handle, and Eagle/Vail is getting close. Rifle is far from that point.”
The company’s long-term plans include building a world-class 4,000-square-foot terminal, just to the west of its current facility. It will accommodate more passengers and provide pilots with a new weather briefing area.
The airport is also in the middle of an upgrade. The runway was last upgraded in 1980, to accommodate small to medium aircraft and was identified by the FAA as being used for larger aircraft. Garfield County is studying a runway realignment, which would change the direction and the angle of the runway. This would provide for safer instrument approaches.
“There are different stages of an airport and it was time for Garfield County to move into the next stage,” Condie said. “There’s no magic number, but when you hit one million gallons of jet fuel sales, you can provide the services that clients really like. The Rifle Jet Center is really moving us forward to the next level of service.”
In fact, Condie said that merging the two FBOs into a single operation has helped make the airport safer.
“The ramp is operated more efficiently, now that there’s just one FBO. There’s less cross-traffic and fewer hazards,” Condie said. “The ground operations are safer these days.”
The airport still faces the challenge of a drop in traffic during the summer months.
“We still need to manage that swing between our winter and summer months, to find a connection that will help bring more traffic in the summer,” Ostrander said. “People may need more of a reason to fly into Rifle during those months. At the same time, there are more and more people building ranches, homes and golf courses, so we’re bound to grow in the next few years.”
The FBO is also working with Garfield County Regional and the county commissioners to promote the airport both regionally and nationally.
“The airport’s business is so closely tied together with our business,” Carver said. “We work the airport to promote it as a whole, not just this FBO. We have to make sure we watch everybody’s backs in order for this thing to work.”
In the short-term, Carver and Ostrander are just trying to catch up from an extremely busy winter season and make plans for the future.
“We jumped into this in the middle of our busiest season, and we’re still getting our focus back,” Ostrander said. “In the coming months, you’ll see a complete revamp of our charter and FBO operations.”
Feedback from customers has been promising, and the Rifle Jet Center is looking forward to 10 percent growth per year.
“We’ve gotten nothing but good reviews from the pilots and passengers who have come through here since we merged the operations together,” Ostrander said. “We can do it all here. We have the affordable fuel, the maintenance and the avionics. You can have everything done, whether you’re in Rifle, Aspen or Vail.”
For more information about the Rifle Jet Center, visit [http://www.riflejetcenter.com].