A visit to Laramie Regional Airport now can make you feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. Forced inactivity during this pandemic has meant that we have not been paying much attention to airline travel.
But in Laramie, that downturn coincided with a perfect opportunity for a major change — airport terminal replacement.
Overcrowded terminalAnyone who has flown out of Laramie in the past knows that a terminal expansion was sorely needed. That was evident even before the days of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) inspections of all passengers and baggage.
When I first flew out of Laramie in 1966 for a job-related trip to a meeting in Seattle, the terminal was a tiny little place with a few chairs. Every passenger brought their whole family with them for a splendid send-off, it seemed, so seats were scarce. But you only needed to get to the airport maybe 10 minutes before your flight.
Those were the days when Frontier Airlines used to have those “air sickness bags” for passengers in its propeller-driven planes. It was a noisy, bumpy ride, and the person seated next to me on the Seattle trip needed that bag. The power of suggestion almost had me in the same situation; cigarette smoking passengers made the situation worse.
There was a doubling of the tiny terminal in the 1950s. A few decades later the terminal expanded further with an extension to the east providing a new seating area and big windows.
Even so, the terminal was crowded with people coming and going. The last thing the attendants did was to deliver incoming passengers’ bags. The two check-in attendants also saw to refueling, loading passengers, unloading incoming baggage and stowing outgoing bags; then they waved the flashlights to guide and signal pilots that it was safe for takeoff. Often that was a 20 minute wait or longer until they could get back to setting out bags for passengers to claim. One person joked that he could have driven to Denver’s Stapleton Airport in the time it took to wait for baggage in Laramie. Not quite that bad, but it was a long wait.
Then came TSAThe crowding got even worse after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist air attacks. TSA was founded on Nov. 19, 2001. Overnight, things changed for passengers and all airline terminals.
Checked baggage had to be opened and checked by hand in Laramie, and those waiting had to be separated from those who had gone through security. The airport adapted with a physical clear barrier dividing off about 1/3 of the former barely-adequate seating area to become the security check-in. Once through it, there was no bathroom, no water fountain, and no certainty as to how long passengers would be waiting to board. There was seating for only 28 passengers at the most, and the new planes held 50. It was a tight squeeze.
Worse yet, the extra check-in time meant that we all had to get to the airport sooner. Sometimes half an hour was ok, sometimes not. The bigger planes that began serving Laramie meant more customers arriving an hour before flight time. That’s the way it was when I last flew out of Laramie, maybe two years ago.
Brees Field originsLaramie’s airport in the current location west of town came about during the Great Depression with federal funding provided to build up the country and provide jobs through the Civil Works Administration (CWA). This short-lived program began in 1933 and ended the next year. But during that time it had over 4 million workers, and spent over $400 million. The total cost of the Laramie project was $56,588.47, with Laramie City Engineer Elmer K. Nelson, in charge — he figured costs to the penny.
Laramie’s airport was one of 1,000 new or improved airports built across the country in 1933-34. Rawlins and Gillette also received airports through the same program.
It was nothing fancy, but a huge improvement over grassy fields and near-total lack of infrastructure of that had existed before. It opened in 1934, though most local people at the time had no plans to fly anywhere in those very early days of commercial air travel.
One historic report says the new airport experienced less than one landing a week until 1942 when a WWII-era Civilian Pilot Training Program began at the airport. Then they averaged about 400 landings a day in the dozen or more aircraft provided! Challenger Airlines began commercial scheduled flights to and from Denver and Salt Lake City in 1946 with three C-47s according to notes in the airport files by John M. Hill, an early Laramie pilot and engineer.
Brees, not Breeze!The new airport was given the name Brees Field to honor General Herbert J. Brees, (1877-1958) a Laramie native and 1897 UW alum who had been captain of the football team. He became a career Army officer who served in France during WWI and received several decorations including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, and the French Legion of Honor.
He was a Brigadier General in the Philippines in 1934 when the new airfield in Laramie was named for him — his career was covered in the local press during WWI. General Brees and his wife Elizabeth (Nicholson) Brees (1891-1961) are buried in Fort Sam Houston Military Cemetery. Apparently they had no children.
Census takers and other clerks often spelled the family name as “Breese,” but it’s clear that Herbert always went by the spelling Brees. Pronounced “breeze,” there is some irony to the choice of this name for the Laramie airport, as if a high elevation (for an American commercial airport) were not already enough to make a pilot wary.
Runways were first paved in 1942 to allow large military planes to land, so Laramie could become a “rest and recuperation” layover spot at the UW Recreation Camp in the Snowy Range for WWII soldiers. The main runway was extended to 8,500 feet in 1998.
Joint Powers BoardAt first, the County Commissioners and the City Council managed all airport affairs. This began taking too much time from the other duties of these elected officials. Therefore, a nine member appointed Joint Powers Board was formed in 1965 to oversee management of the airport. In 1992, the board changed its name and the airport name to Laramie Regional Airport.
Since the beginning in 1934, there has been a general aviation facility at the airport for private and charter plane servicing and storage. A large Quonset-roof-style building for this purpose was part of the airport design. At first, these facilities were managed by private individuals or organizations that leased the facility. In 1986, the “fixed base operator” became Cowboy Aviation and the Joint Powers Board took over these operations, retaining the name.
General Aviation serviceIn 2015, a new Cowboy Aviation terminal opened, paid for with grants from 11 local and state agencies including the city, county and UW. Currently, arriving and departing commercial passengers also utilize a temporary extension to that building; it houses the TSA screening and the secure waiting rooms for passengers who have been cleared.
The Cowboy Aviation building was designed by Jviation Inc. of Denver, a company that specializes in transportation planning, design and construction, with expertise in airport infrastructure. With its high ceilings, large window areas and western-themed accessories, the building has a noticeable “Wyoming” look. The new terminal under construction will also sport this theme, not the cookie-cutter look of many regional airports.
A recent Laramie air traveler, Margaret Brown, said of the current make-shift use of the Cowboy Aviation terminal: “Even the temporary facility now has more seating and waiting area than the former terminal had!” She added: “The previous facility for Cowboy Aviation was inadequate, just a small former house with one bathroom — not a good introduction to Laramie for people arriving for UW events. The new Cowboy Aviation facility is great.”
New terminalWork on the exterior of the new terminal is almost finished, and the interior fixtures are on site or on order. It is hoped that by December or January the first passengers will be using the new facility. Until then, the commercial boarding area is basically a plywood hallway connecting to five boxcar-like buildings hooked together. Airport manager Jack Skinner said that a “soft opening” is likely, with a bigger celebration later when the public will be invited to tour the building.
Skinner also said that business has been “pretty steady though the summer and early fall. Tourism was pretty good, the big drop off was in business travel.” He expected that the next few months will be the test as tourism usually gives way to more business travel then. “But with the experience that businesses have had online, we may see a lot of that traffic diminish as businesses discover that employees can work together remotely pretty well,” he said.
SkyWest doing OKLuckily, SkyWest/United, the carrier serving Laramie, is doing ok for now, Skinner said. “The cut off of special federal aid to airlines isn’t going to affect them much since they are in a good position to weather the current situation for a while.” He pointed out that they are still providing two flights to Denver and two from Denver most days, with just one flight each way on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Regional carriers fulfill a real need, Skinner believes, and they are weathering the downturn in commercial aviation better than most.
About half of the new $11.7 million terminal was paid for by the people of Laramie who voted in 2018 to finance it through a special purpose sales tax. The tax is paying about $6 million of the total; the Wyoming State Aeronautics Board paid over $3 million and the remainder came from the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Skinner.
The route into the airport has been given the name “General Brees Road” as a nod to the historic the name of the route to the airport off Highway 130.