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Passengers missing flights at airport

Security changes worsening congestion

Changes in the airport’s security system and the addition of another afternoon flight are causing bottlenecks at the security checkpoint, so passengers are advised to get to the airport at least 90 minutes early. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/ Durango Herald

Changes in the airport’s security system and the addition of another afternoon flight are causing bottlenecks at the security checkpoint, so passengers are advised to get to the airport at least 90 minutes early.

At least 20 travelers have missed their flights at a wildly congested Durango-La Plata County Airport in the last week because they couldn’t get through security in time, airport and airline officials estimated Thursday during an Airport Commission meeting.

Officials are advising passengers to get to the airport at least 90 minutes early, especially if their flight leaves mid-afternoon.

Since American Airlines added an additional departure on Valentine’s Day, there now are four flights leaving within 30 minutes of 3 p.m., creating a bottleneck of 300 or so passengers all trying to board flights about the same time.

Lines for security have extended from the checkpoint to the front of the airline ticket counters. The departure lounge has become so overcrowded that the security checkpoint has had to momentarily shut down for safety reasons.

Gary Suiter, interim airport director, appealed to the Transportation Security Administration for a second security checkpoint but was denied based on TSA funding formulas that Suiter said are skewed toward larger airports.

To add insult to injury, the TSA on Tuesday took away the airport’s L-3 body-scanning equipment, nicknamed the “Gumby” because it makes a generic, cartoon-like image of passengers. It went to a larger airport to replace the controversial Rapiscan scanner that made the explicit, full-body images of passengers.

With the loss of Gumby, the Durango-La Plata Airport is back to checking passengers with metal detectors and body pat-downs. The wand also has been discontinued.

But the airport commission also faces logistical barriers to relieving the congestion, saying the airport needs to add another X-ray machine for luggage, which would cost $1.2 million, and create more space for the departure lounge, such as putting up a temporary structure.

Officials were so desperate for answers Thursday that Airport Commissioner Marcel Theberge suggested putting up a tent, but this idea was rejected as not being secure enough.

Officials appreciate that the growth in passengers is a good problem to have. In January, passengers boarding were up 18.4 percent from a year ago as 14,201 passengers boarded flights here. The average capacity on flights was about 73 percent.

But Jody Doney, a manager for Skywest, a contractor for United Air Lines, wondered if the growth ultimately might be self-defeating, noting that “people are not going to wait 90 minutes in line; it’s too long. We’re going to lose customers.”

Doney faulted officials for dithering.

“It’s extremely frustrating from an airline perspective,” Doney said. “You needed to put up a sprung-structure (to accommodate the overflow) in August. You continue to talk about it.”

Commissioners also expressed frustration as they heard about delays for improvements caused by bureaucratic red tape and structural issues.

Commissioner Gary Derck, who also is an executive at Durango Mountain Resort, seemed to lose patience when staff talked about future plans for new parking ticket “spitters,” or the machines that emit the tickets.

“Get the parking space you need before Easter Sunday, before you go for the froufrou,” Derck said.

The fee for parking a whole day at the airport is set to increase by a dollar to $7 in March to accommodate parking improvements.

Shallow-buried utility lines also could cause delays in paving the overflow parking lot and a terminal expansion project because they would have to be moved before work could begin.

The airport also has not begun collecting a $4.50 facility fee on airline tickets because the Federal Aviation Administration has not signed off on the $6 million expansion of the terminal. This revenue is supposed to finance the debt service on the construction. Officials wondered about the possibility of getting a bridge loan so construction could begin sooner. There seemed to be confusion about what kind of upgrades the new terminal needs, such as a jet bridge or a baggage belt.

The airport, which has been without a permanent director since Ron Dent retired in January, is waiting for the La Plata County commissioners and the Durango City Council to OK a new intergovernmental agreement before extending a job offer to a finalist candidate who has cleared a criminal background check. The offer is expected to be made early next month.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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