Just behind ticket counters, which house four airlines and two bag scanners, airport employees run gas-powered tugs through a narrow driveway, picking up the packed suitcases and taking them out to the tarmac at the Durango-La Plata County Airport./Photo by Tracy Chamberlin

Airport takes off

Discussions begin on the future of Durango-La Plata Airport

by Tracy Chamberlin

The queue stretched across the hallway and into a crowd gathered around one end of the carousel, blurring the lines between car rental and baggage claim.

Just a stone’s throw away, passengers assembled at the ticket counter on the other end of the terminal, ready to return home with everything they brought for a weeklong vacation in Durango, including souvenirs stuffed in every outer pocket of their checked bags.

Behind the counters, which house four airlines and two bag scanners, airport employees ran gas-powered tugs through a narrow drive-thru, picking up the packed suitcases and taking them out to the tarmac at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, where just one 50-passenger plane awaited.

Director of Aviation Kip Turner calls the scene normal operations.

The same area houses employee lockers, storage shelves and offices. /Photo by Tracy Chamberlin

It’s not the even the busiest hour of the day. During peak hours, the airport typically services three to four planes, each capable of seating 70 to 90 passengers. That number will become more common, Turner said, as airlines phase out the regional 50-seater for larger aircraft that can hold up to 130 passengers.

So, it wasn’t surprising when Jviation, a planning, design and construction firm specializing in aviation projects, spotted deficiencies in six different areas while taking a snapshot view of the airport late last year.

The firm, headquartered in Denver, determined Durango-La Plata packed passengers, baggage claim, ticket counters, security checkpoints and all the other needed services into about 41,500 square feet.

What was actually needed to accommodate all that, according to industry standards, was 82,100 square feet – almost twice as much space.

“All (the snapshot) did was turn the light on,” Turner said.

It was the first step in updating the Airport Master Plan, a guide that shows the facility as it works today and offers recommendations to meet the needs of one that could serve as a gateway to the Four Corners for the next 20 years.

Turner said peak hours serve as the basis for any kind of terminal facility project, like the development of an Airport Master Plan.

The process includes seeking input from a Planning Advisory Committee, or PAC, made up of representatives from local, state and federal agencies, as well as business and community leaders from all over the Four Corners.

It also includes the community.

Area residents are welcome to comment on the plan, the process or the airport through email, the 4
airport website or by attending open houses scheduled to start this fall. Turner has even set up public tours on the first Thursday of each month, starting Aug. 7.

Behind the baggage carousel

Public tours available: Residents are invited to take a guided tour of the Durango-La Plata County Airport and see what’s going on behind the baggage carousel. Starting Aug. 7, tours will be held the first Thursday of each month at 2:30 p.m. The maximum is 15 people per tour, and  everyone must sign up ahead of time. To sign up, go to sites.jviation.com/dro.

Get involved: If you’re looking to comment or just keep up-to-date with the Airport Master Plan, visit the master plan website at sites.jviation.com/dro. You can also go to the city website at www.durangogov.org or the airport website at www.flydurango.com and click on the “Airport Master Plan” tab on the left. The Home Page has a link to the comments section; or, click on the “Contact Us” tab to get on the mailing list.

Over the next year, the firm, committee, community and local officials will examine ways to bring the airport up to date and plan for the next 20 years.

Whether that means upgrading the terminal, expanding it or looking at new facilities on undeveloped acreage, nothing is off the table as planners head into the first stages of creating the master plan.

Turner’s focus at this point is letting residents know what he’s dealing with on a daily basis. He’s looking to correct the deficiencies, meet the needs of passengers and airlines, as well as grow the airport.

In mid to late fall, Turner expects to have real alternatives that can be explored in depth.

“We are the regional airport,” he added, “and I think we can stay the regional airport.”

Durango-La Plata has competition between four good carriers, United, US Airways, Frontier and American, which helps keep ticket prices down. They also offer direct access to three major hubs, Denver, Dallas and Phoenix; and, according to Turner, “We’re working on more.”

As other airports in the region have seen a decline in passenger enplanements over the past several years, Durango has gone up.

Last year, the airport racked up almost 200,000 enplanements, a number that tallies only flights out of Durango. As for how many passengers the airport serves, Turner said, basically double that number to about 400,000.

Then, of course, add in the friends and families waiting outside security, the employees at the car rental counters or the gift shop, and those needed to turn the plane over in 30 minutes, a benchmark set by the airlines.

“We exceeded the (airport’s) capabilities when we passed the 100,000 mark,” Turner said.

In an effort to adapt to the growing needs of the passengers, a tent waiting area was added last year just outside the terminal. But it takes space on the tarmac and is only a temporary solution.

Temporary fixes and turning broom closets into offices is something that airport employees deal with on a daily basis. “The point I’ve been making is that there’s a shelf life to that,” Turner said.

Money talks: Residents asked for 2 cents on city spending

The airport isn’t the only conversation in which area residents can add their two cents.

City officials are also looking for ideas and suggestions on the 2015 City Budget during a public workshop at 5 p.m. Tues., July 29, at City Hall Council Chambers, 949 E. 2nd Ave. 

One suggestion offered during these public workshops that found its way to fruition was a change in the price for passes at the Durango Recreation Center.

Prior to 2010, passes were based on rates for families and couples with higher costs for individual passes. That year, however, rates were revised for single adults because of input from the community. 

“(A) citizen commented that the fee structure provided greater discounts for couples and families,” Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz explained. “This individual was a single adult and thought the pricing structure was not as favorable to a single adult.”

This year, the community’s opportunity to offer up ideas begins at the July 29 workshop where residents can also learn more about the how the budget works and the process of developing it.

Those who can’t attend the workshop can submit ideas by Aug. 8 via email to citymanager@durangogov.org or mail to the City Manager’s Office, 949 E. 2nd Ave., Durango, CO 81301.

Tracy Chamberlin