Like many smaller airports, the Durango-La Plata County Airport – also known by its airport code DRO – provides our community with a critical link to the outside world. It’s an important economic engine too, contributing more than $160 million to the La Plata County economy annually.
As a public resource – owned jointly by the city of Durango and La Plata County but operated as a city department – DRO’s goals are to serve the community and continue to improve air service by supporting growth and competition. New routes and new airlines generally yield lower ticket prices.
[Image:1,mugshot]Airports have many moving parts, both literally and figuratively. The interaction of these parts – the airlines, facilities, weather and others – can create misperceptions when it comes to issues such as passenger traffic, airport funding sources and airfares. I hope to correct some of these misperceptions and explain why it’s important for DRO to continue to grow.
A Durango Herald reader recently wrote that she thought DRO passenger traffic was declining (“Dear airport, please learn marketing,” Aug. 18). The truth is, passenger traffic has increased 1.7 percent so far this year. This increase even sustained through the early summer, when the 416 Fire was heavily impacting our region. The fire took a toll on our community to be sure, but it was not demonstrated in DRO’s passenger traffic.
DRO is served by American and United, two of the four largest U.S. airlines. American’s passenger traffic is holding steady, in part from a third year of summer seasonal traffic to Los Angeles. United has experienced a notable 11 percent increase in passenger traffic so far in 2018, partly by adding an additional Denver flight during portions of this summer.
For context, DRO’s 2017 passenger growth was flat. Passenger growth had declined slightly from 2014 to 2016, but only after 11 straight years of significant growth during which passenger traffic roughly doubled. We expect to resume growth this year in the 1-2 percent range.
While owned by local taxpayers, DRO receives no – zero – local tax dollars. The airport’s operational expenses are self-funded through revenue sources such as airline fees, parking and concession rent. In fact, DRO regularly generates a surplus, which is reinvested in repairs and improvements. We also apply for and receive Federal Aviation Administration grants, which are used for certain eligible capital improvements. When local firms are the awarded bidder for these projects, it supports employment and has an important economic multiplier effect.
Altogether, estimated economic activity related to DRO supports some 2,400 jobs – more than 1,850 in La Plata County, 3.5 percent of total employment. DRO also contributes nearly 5 percent of estimated tax revenues in La Plata County and the city of Durango.
Earlier this year, we implemented a marketing campaign: “More Time. More Life. Fly Durango.” We initiated the campaign to address leakage, which is an airport industry term used to describe passenger traffic lost to other surrounding airports. In our case, these airports are Albuquerque and Denver. Many airports of our size implement marketing programs to address leakage and declining passenger traffic. Even though our traffic was flat and not declining, our goal is to reinvigorate growth so that DRO may see increased service and lower ticket prices, which the airlines alone control.
Before launching the campaign, we conducted research to better understand why leisure and business travelers use DRO rather than drive to Denver or Albuquerque to, presumably, save on airfares. We also conducted a best-practices audit among similar airports.
The “More Time. More Life.” theme was selected because it’s difficult to address the leakage issue entirely on price, particularly given that the airport does not control airfares. The campaign points out that using DRO offers concrete benefits – namely hours of saved drive time, affordable parking, easily navigated facilities and friendly local service – that may outweigh potentially higher ticket prices. We remind people that the average differential in airfare may not be worth the time and miles they’re putting in. That, of course, is a subjective argument. Such is advertising.
Advertising is one way we are attempting to facilitate growth, and growth is what will prompt our incumbent airlines to add new routes, as well as what will attract new airlines. This means better service, lower ticket prices and a thriving airport that is doing its best to serve its community.
Tony Vicari is director of aviation at the Durango-La Plata County Airport.