By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Lisa Joe, of Cheyenne, booked a flight in December to get to a family reunion in Oregon in July, but her flight was unexpectedly canceled.
It’s not another computer meltdown, like the FAA system outage that caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations on Jan. 11. That snafu piled on top of a winter storm, which had also forced thousands of cancellations.
The issue here is construction of a new runway, which will be started this spring. As a result of the $24 million project, the Cheyenne Regional Airport will be closed to commercial flights from April 1 to around Sept. 10.
Tim Bradshaw, director of the Cheyenne Regional Airport, told Cowboy State Daily closing the airport was a last resort.
“The last thing you want to do is just say ‘Hey, folks, we’re gonna stop here for a while and come back,’” Bradshaw told Cowboy State Daily. “You know, it’s just not a good idea to do that.”
Second Runway Not An Option
The airport’s second runway was considered as a potential option to accept commercial flights, but it was not long enough. A different airline with smaller planes was also sought, but there were no takers.
“We tried to get the FAA to let us use some of the existing pavement, too,” Bradshaw said. “We did everything we could to try to avoid this. But we really don’t have any choice, because you have to have a lot of runway in Wyoming because of the altitude.”
The airport will still be accepting National Guard flights which can land on a shorter runway, but the commercial planes landing at Cheyenne are too big for that solution, Bradshaw said.
Unknown Number of Flights Affected
The decision to close the airport for construction was made last week, Bradshaw said.
It’s not known at this time how many flights into and out of Cheyenne had to be canceled as a result.
Cowboy State Daily emailed SkyWest to find out more details about how the cancellations are being handled. They had not responded at the time of this story’s posting.
Lisa Joe was able to use a credit issued for the flight to book what she called a landline service out of Fort Collins. She described that as passengers checking in at Fort Collins, where they are allowed to park for free, then take a bus to Denver International Airport.
“After that, they take care of your bags, and you just have to deal with the TSA line,” Lisa Joe said. “It cost us like another $150 even with the credit.”
Runway Is Latest Project In An Ongoing Effort
The project this spring will replace 3,600 feet of the main runway. A total of 60,000 square yards of concrete will be laid down.
The runway construction this spring is part of an overall $60 million project to upgrade the Cheyenne Regional Airport.
“The airport is more than 50 years old,” Bradshaw said. “It was falling apart.”
The airport partnered with the National Guard as well as elected officials to seek commitments of $60 million to renovate the facility.
More Repairwork Planned In 2024
The completion of the runway project this spring does not conclude construction work at the airport, Bradshaw told Cowboy State Daily.
There will also be some repairs in 2024 to fix work done by a previous contractor that was not up to specs, Bradshaw said.
“They took two years to do a four-month project,” he said. “And some of the concrete they’ve poured failed the testing standards.”
As part of that work, the main runway length will be reduced, and the second shorter runway will be closed for 30 to 90 days. This will likely mean a reduced number of seats on flights, referred to as a seat penalty, but there should be air service in the summer of 2024.
Boardings Have Increased Despite Challenges
Cheyenne Regional Airport’s boardings have been steadily increasing despite the outages and challenges caused by the construction projects, Bradshaw said.
Boardings increased 64 percent over the past 12 months, in spite of runway restrictions over the past summer that included some weight and balance limits.
Bradshaw hopes the growth in boardings will ultimately help make the business case for airlines to add more flights out of Cheyenne, but it’s challenging for them to add new flights right now.
Not only is there a severe pilot shortage, but many airlines are still recovering from the pandemic.
“All the airlines I’ve talked to they’ve said, ‘Hey we have a good market and we’re strongly interested, but we just cannot grow our capacity right now, because we’re still just trying to get caught up.”