August 8, 2005
Many transportation experts look to trains, buses and car pools to resolve the rapidly worsening traffic jam on Interstate 25 along Colorado’s Front Range.
Bart Phlegar looks to the sky. The Denver businessman thinks the solution to Colorado’s shrinking interstate space is a still-experimental aircraft called a SkyCat. Phlegar said the blimplike vehicle could take commuters from Colorado Springs to Denver in about 40 minutes, and a round-trip ticket would cost about $23. Could Colorado Springs commuters zip up to Denver, Jetsons-style, land on “airpad” platforms and walk to a con- nection with the city’s light-rail train system? Phlegar said the idea is less outlandish than it seems. He is a consultant to the Thin Air Group, a Denver-based company formed in January to pursue air service to Front Range cities. “We can essentially offer this service for the same price, or maybe a little bit more, as an SUV making 15 miles to the gallon driving that same distance,” he said. Officials at agencies that regulate transportation said they hadn’t heard of the Thin Air Group, so they’re not tracking its progress. But Jon Esty, an advocate for expanding mass transit in the state, found the SkyCat idea intriguing. “If they meet all their assumptions about the thing being able to fly, then it’s certainly going to be a contender for people’s interest in short and long-range transport,” said Esty, who is president of the Colorado Rail Passenger Association. The Thin Air Group says it’s pursuing similar projects in New Mexico, the San Francisco Bay area, San Diego and between Denver and Black Hawk. On its Web site, www.thinairgroup.com, the company offers a detailed accounting of its plans, down to the weekday flight schedule, including an 8:35 a.m. first departure from Colorado Springs. The company plans service to Pueblo, Colorado Springs, Denver’s old Stapleton Airport, Denver International Airport, Greeley, Fort Collins and Cheyenne, Wyo. All this doesn’t mean it’s time to pack your bags and start a T-minus countdown to liftoff. Plenty of hurdles remain. No business has used a Sky-Cat vehicle to carry passengers or freight. An Englandbased company called World SkyCat Ltd. still is developing the vehicle and plans a world tour this year. Paying for the service wouldn’t be easy, either. Phlegar estimates he would need voters to approve a quartercent sales tax to buy three vehicles for $32 million. Such a tax would generate about $17.5 million in El Paso County this year. Tickets, food and drink sales and advertising income would pick up the rest, and the service might even operate at a profit, Phlegar said. The company plans to sell advertising space on the side of the huge SkyCat, banking on people gawking at an enormous helium balloon hovering over a city. “It’s going to have a very high visibility; it’s very marketable,” Phlegar said. Phlegar said he hasn’t yet checked with federal authorities who set security protocols for aircraft. Passengers might have to go through metal detectors and their baggage through X-ray machines, he said, but security measures probably would be less than those at a commercial airport. “In my mind it wouldn’t require that degree of security because this type of aircraft, it’s a very poor target for terrorists and that sort of thing,” he said. “If you put a bomb on it, it’ll blow out one compartment, but it won’t take out the whole thing.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0187 or firstname.lastname@example.org