The new director of aviation at Durango-La Plata County Airport, Kip Turner, wants to build an entirely new terminal facility at a cost of $143 million. To sell that, however, he will have to answer more than a few questions – the answers to which may not now be knowable.
It is only natural Turner would want to take on such a project. He is newly in charge of the airport and seems ambitious. Besides, who would not rather have a shiny new airport terminal large enough to accommodate – some might even say encourage – future growth?
Well, those who would pay for it, for starters.
While as much as 80 percent of the cost of the new terminal could be picked up by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Colorado Department of Transportation, that could still leave county taxpayers on the hook for as much as $40 million. Is that local voters’ highest priority?
Moreover, money is not the only issue. The airline industry is volatile, fickle and largely impervious to our crystal balls.
Turner envisions relocating the airport terminal to the other side of the runway, which would have the benefit of physically separating airline security from general aviation – all other forms of aviation – which the FAA encourages. It is unclear if anyone has looked into paying the general aviation facilities at the airport to move, but the question is worth asking. That would allow the current terminal area to expand to the south and may be cheaper than moving the terminal.
The other reason to move the terminal to the other side of the runway, Turner says, is that the current location is hemmed in by topography. That makes redoing the existing facility impractical.
Except that two years ago, it seemed the city of Durango and La Plata County, which jointly operate the airport, were about to agree on a $6 million remodel to the existing terminal. That plan called for adding 12,000 to 16,000 square feet worth of departure lounge space, two more sets of restrooms, food concessions, a newstand and gift shop.
There too, officials hoped to see some grant money. But even if that failed to materialize, that plan would cost local taxpayers millions of dollars less than what is envisioned for an entire new terminal.
But would it be adequate – or is an entire new terminal needed? That depends, both on value judgments and what the future might hold.
In World War II, Pacific jungle tribes experiencing their first outside contact watched foreign troops clear runways and erect windsocks, after which the locals saw giant silver birds land and disgorge tons of goods. In what became known as the “cargo cult,” the natives cleared jungle runways to lure silver birds of their own.
The same thinking too often pervades airport development. In that regard, whether a whole new terminal is warranted depends on how much one believes in our ability to attract silver birds.
Guessing the future offers little more guidance. Emplanements have grown, but will that continue apace? How do we know? Linear projections are rarely trustworthy. Frontier made noises about resuming service to Durango at some point. Will it? And what will be the effect of the US Air-American merger? Do we know any of that? And would the possible answers argue for a new terminal or expanding the current one?
At this point there is too much still unknown or poorly understood to be talking about ballot issues and $143 million projects. That the airport needs attention is clear. Knowing the best answer will take study and time.