Airport director defends gates, other operations

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Rex Tippetts defends the installation of fencing and gates at the Grand Junction Regional Airport as the best available option to comply with federal safety and security regulations.

Tippetts also defends what he said is a record of improvements in airport operations and commercial airline service during his six-year tenure as director of aviation.

“The airport has never been in better shape.”

Tippetts discussed the controversy over the new perimeter fence and gates as well as other airport operations during a lengthy interview with the Business Times.

Tippetts and the seven-member Grand Junction Airport Authority board that oversees the airport have come under fire over concerns the new fencing and security gates hinder access to businesses operated at the airport. The gates require that people without security badges who visit the businesses first call them to gain entry and then be escorted back and forth by someone with a badge. Business owners have complained the measures are unwieldy and unnecessary. 

The Grand Junction City Council, which appoints three members to the airport authority board, has become involved in the dispute and at one point demanded in a letter the board respond to complaints and consider and implement alternatives.

Tippetts said the issue goes back years to an assessment that wildlife poses a potential hazard to airport operations. Two options were considered: the removal of wildlife habitats and additional patrols or the installation of a perimeter fence.

Subsequent regulations imposed by the Transportation Security Administration required that airport security measures be extended to general aviation operations. Specifically, the TSA requires that access to what’s known as the air operations area be controlled, Tippetts said.

Given the availability of federal funding to install the fence, Tippetts said the airport authority board concluded the best option to comply with both the wildlife and security regulations was to erect the fence around the air operations area as well as the general aviation hangars, including the handful of businesses operating in that area.

The other option would have been to require that general aviation tenants at the airport control access to the air operations area, Tippetts said. But the board didn’t want to pass on to tenants the substantial expense of securing so many doors and windows. “They were really looking for a way not to do that.”

While Tippetts has been accused of a “bias” against general aviation, he said general aviation tenants have been invited to one-on-one meetings to discuss issues.

At the same time, Tippetts said he and the authority board have a responsibility to operate the Grand Junction Regional Airport in a manner that serves not only general aviation, but also the residents of a large region that depend on the airport for commercial air transportation.

While general aviation accounts for more than half of aircraft operations at the airport, nearly 75 percent of airport revenues are related to commercial aviation, he said.

Tippetts said that since he become director of aviation late in 2005, he’s overseen a lengthy list of improvements in airport facilities and operations.

That list includes the reconstruction of roadways and parking facilities; rehabilitation work on aprons, ramps and runways; and the opening of a Subway restaurant to provide food service in the terminal.

At the same time, commercial air service has increased with the addition of new carriers and routes. Six airlines now offer service from Grand Junction to a total of seven destinations: Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Tippetts said he meets four or five times a year with representatives from airlines to discuss additional commercial service. When airlines expand, he expects some of the new routes to include Grand Junction. “We’re on the top of the list.”

The airport has secured additional service without offering any kinds of financial guarantees, he added.

Enplanements — passengers boarding commercial flights — have increased and climbed to an annual record of nearly 232,000 in 2009. More than 203,000 enplanements were recorded in 2011.