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Growing, growing, growing

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Passenger numbers at the Durango-La Plata County Airport have increased steadily during the last few years, up 15.7 percent through April over 2012, and the airport now is experiencing serious overcrowding at certain times of the day.

By Ann Butler Herald staff writer

Some problems are good to have. In the case of the Durango-La Plata County Airport, steady and significant growth in airport departures means it might pass 200,000 passengers for the first time in 2013.

“Speaking as an airport guy, this is what you want to see,” said Kip Turner, the new director of aviation at the airport. “Enplanements through April are up 15.7 percent over the same period in 2012, 16.2 percent for the month of April 2013 over April 2012.”

And 2012, with 186,527 enplanements, saw a growth rate of 6.6 percent over 2011.

Turner noted that you need to double that with the arriving passenger numbers to really understand how many travelers the airport accommodates each year.

To handle the increased traffic, many changes are afoot, including a temporary area to hold passengers who already have passed through security and a new Transportation Security Administration screening line.

Turner said the second TSA line is on schedule to be in place by the end of this month or beginning of June.

“They have located the equipment, and we’re finishing up the wiring and setup on our end,” he said.

The contractor has ordered the materials for the 4,500-square-foot temporary structure, and it will be convenient to have both available about the same time, Turner said. That’s particularly true at a critical time each afternoon, when four flights normally land and take off in a one-hour period between 2 and 3 p.m.

Increased safety

Another improvement close to being implemented is a multilateration (tracking) system.

“It means that for the first time, the Denver approach folks can see the flights from departure until they’re on the ground here,” Turner said. “This modern-day technology creates a much safer atmosphere and compensates for the fact that we don’t have a tower here.”

Turner said the Colorado Department of Transportation told him the equipment is installed, but he hasn’t been given a date for when air-traffic controllers in Denver will begin using it.

The Durango-La Plata County Airport handles 11 to 12 flights daily and is served by four airlines, including Frontier Airlines, which operates an A-319 aircraft that can carry more than 100 passengers.

Turner expects the other airlines to switch to higher-capacity aircraft if the passenger growth rate continues.

Long-term projects

Turner’s background in airport expansion is a reason he was hired after longtime director Ron Dent retired. La Plata County essentially has outgrown the current terminal, built in 1988. Discussions have begun about a $6 million expansion, tentatively scheduled to begin in 2014.

“We’re still in the meat-and-potatoes stage, trying to figure out size, basic accommodations, a sufficient number of bathrooms,” Turner said. “We haven’t even gotten to the side dishes, the bells and whistles, but we’ll have those, too.”

One of the priorities of the expansion, although it will be handled by a separate committee, is increased parking space.

“It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg, needing to expand both the terminal and the parking,” Turner said. “These are standard problems at any airport that’s doing well, but there’s no doubt parking is a critical issue.”

Turner is just getting started raising money for the project, but a chunk of it is likely to come from the Airport Improvement Program, a $3.5 billion fund Congress has set aside for projects related to an important part of the nation’s infrastructure. Administered by the Federal Aviation Administration, the money provides grants that can cover a significant portion of such projects, with amounts determined by a variety of factors.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed a bill allowing the FAA to draw funds from the program to bring back the air-traffic controllers furloughed because of sequestration.

“As a percentage of the total fund, it’s minimal in scale, about $200 million,” Turner said, adding that its unlikely the withdrawal might delay the Durango-La Plata County Airport’s expansion. “It’s not concerning me about the funding we’ll need, but it’s a great concern for the precedent it’s setting for what may happen down the road. As far as I know, it’s the first time they ever opened the door for anything related to operating expenses from the program.”

The regional hub

Ever since commercial flights began arriving in the Four Corners, Durango and Farmington have hoped to become the regional airport hub. Farmington even named its airport Four Corners Regional Airport.

But it appears to be regional in name only. In 2013, Durango has won the competition, with 11 to 12 direct flights daily on four airlines to three cities – Denver, Dallas and Phoenix – compared with Farmington’s five flights daily to Denver on one carrier. The coming expansions should position Durango to widen the service gap.

“There’s always been a rivalry, but I think it all started with the post-World War II oil boom,” historian Duane Smith said. “Farmington suddenly jumped past Durango in population, but Durango was very proud that they didn’t get the roughnecks, they got the oil-company executives, the geologists, the staff looking for oil. When most people hadn’t ever flown in an airplane, Durango had those executives who needed to fly to Denver or other places to their company headquarters.”

abutler@durangoherald.com


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