After a 5-year hiatus, commercial flights return to Northern Colorado as regional airports expand

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Passengers board an Avelo commercial jetliner on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, at Northern Colorado Regional Airport south of Fort Collins. The Avelo flight, headed for Burbank, California, represents the return of commercial aviation to the airport in five years.

The first commercial flight in five years took off from Northern Colorado Regional Airport Wednesday morning, marking the start of a new era for the airport serving a growing region north of Denver. 

About 180 passengers boarded the Boeing 737-800 headed to Burbank, Calif around 10:30 a.m. The flight was operated by low-cost carrier Avelo Airlines.

Outside the terminal, Loveland resident Eric Babe paused to take a selfie with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Emma Vance. Babe said he booked the round-trip flight for $49. 

“I’m pretty excited,” Vance said as she adjusted her pink travel backpack. “I’ve never been to Hollywood before.” 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An Avelo commercial jetliner on Wednesday, October 6, 2021, takes off from Northern Colorado Regional Airport south of Fort Collins. The Avelo flight, headed for Burbank, California, represents the return of commercial aviation to the airport in five years.

Airport leaders and public officials from Fort Collins and Loveland gathered at the edge of the tarmac to celebrate the event, which has been delayed for several years due to difficulties upgrading the facility’s air traffic control tower. 

“It’s surreal,” said Jason Licon, the airport’s director. “It shows that we finally have the ability to offer a travel option outside of Denver for people who need it.” 

The relaunch comes as regional airports across the state build themselves up as alternatives to Denver International Airport.

When passengers Maribeth and Glenn Wagner heard commercial flights were becoming available, they rearranged their fall travel plans. The couple from Red Feather Lakes originally planned to fly out of DIA, but they wanted to avoid the long drive. 

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A member of the ground crew inspects the underside of an Avelo commercial jetliner.

“I looked at it [online] and was like, ‘We’re going,’” Wagner said. “I think it’s going to be good for growth because DIA is so crowded. I think it’s a win-win.”

The airport has offered commercial service in the past. The last scheduled commercial flight was in 2016. Prior to that, Allegiant Airlines offered several routes for travelers, but it stopped service in 2012 due to the airport’s limited air traffic control capacity.

Since then, airport management has spent years upgrading its options. It has invested heavily in a new remote air traffic control tower, which is still awaiting certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.  

Federal inspectors delayed a trip to Northern Colorado last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Licon said. In the meantime, the airport has contracted an outside company to manage air traffic. The years-long delay threw off Allegiant’s plans to resume flights in 2019.

Avelo Airlines plans to operate flights from Loveland to Burbank twice a week. A company representative said the airline would consider offering more routes if demand is strong.  

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A member of the ground crew signals pilots aboard an Avelo commercial jetliner.

As the plane took off, Diana Cassi watched from behind a chain-link fence on the edge of the tarmac with her dog, Lucky. A 30-year Fort Collins resident, she said she was so excited for the return of air travel that she drove to the airport to see it herself.

“It’s exciting to see this airport on the upswing again,” she said. “That just made my day.” 

Officials observing the departure said the re-launch was a pivotal step forward for the region’s transportation infrastructure. Roughly 600,000 people now live within 30 miles of the airport. 

The city of Greeley, which is 30 minutes east of the airport, is the fifth fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to 2020 Census data released in August. Fort Collins, Loveland and smaller surrounding communities have also seen big population jumps over the past decade.

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Fort Collins Mayor Jeni Arndt speaks at a ceremony welcoming Avelo Airlines.

“We’re on the cusp of a whole new world at this airport,” said Jeni Arndt, the mayor of Fort Collins and a member of the commission governing the airport. “This really ties us together regionally.” 

The restart of commercial service is just one part of a broader plan to build out the facility, which currently serves about 100,000 flights each year, mostly from private jets and local hobbyists. 

In April 2020, the airport received $16.9 million in grant funding as a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to its website. Most of that money is being used to design and kickstart the process of building a new terminal. If all goes to schedule, construction could begin by late 2022. 

Airports in Colorado Springs, Montrose, Gunnison, Aspen and Steamboat Springs have also announced either terminal expansion or route expansion plans so far this year.

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Firefighters give a ceremonial dousing of water to an Avelo commercial jetliner.

Editor's Note: Due to an error from a source, a previous version of this story misstated the amount of time elapsed between commercial flights at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport.