From the mountains to the deserts to its unique downtown charm, Durango’s got a lot to offer. And although there was a time that it was one of the best-kept secrets in the Southwest, the word is out, and Durango is a town on the grow. Now the struggle is to maintain an airport that can keep up with that growth. “We’ve more than doubled our traffic in the last 20 years,” said Tony Vicari, who has been the Director of Aviation at the Durango-LaPlata County irport (DRO) since 2014. “This terminal was built in 1988 and was designed for literally half of what we get every day.”
Vicari’s predicament is shared with travelers to and from Durango, residents and tourists alike. On the positive side, DRO is more convenient than most airports in the country – a 20-plus minute traffic-free drive to downtown, parking for $7 a day just steps from the terminal and a walk from ticket counter to TSA to the gate that’s shorter than most moving sidewalks at DIA.
The problem, for Vicari and his team as well as the rest of us, is that there’s just not enough room for everyone – and that means passengers and airlines are in the same boat. Currently the airport is home to just two carriers, United and American Airlines, and space is already crunched as the American gate is housed in a canvas structure adjacent to the original terminal building. A master plan developed in 2015 identified three possibilities for expansion including: 1) A complete rebuild to the east of the existing runway; 2) A new terminal to the north, which is already developed with commercial properties; and 3) To renovate and expand the existing terminal building and facilities. The first option was selected and put to voters in 2016 in the form of an $85 million bond issue that would have been funded jointly by the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration in a matching grant, but it was defeated by a 2-1 margin at the polls.
“I don’t think that vote was a “no” to development or expansion, but I just don’t think the people were ready to make that kind of investment,” Vicari said. “I think the sentiment was ‘We need roads and schools – the airport works fine so why do we need to change it?’” The answer to that question lies in the numbers. As Vicari said, passenger counts have exploded in recent years. In 2003, DRO emplaned about 86,000 passengers. Most statistics assume a near equal number of deplaned passengers, or roughly 175,000 total travelers. In 2018, the total number of emplaned and deplaned neared 400,000 and Vicari said the numbers are up another 3% already in 2019. Even with that growth, Vicari identified passenger leakage – those who drive 3 ½ hours to Albuquerque or 7 hours to Denver to save on airfare – as the number one challenge to the continued success of the airport. It’s a true Catch-22 situation; to keep passengers flying in and out of Durango, the cost must be comparable to the larger airports. But getting lower airfares requires more competition, and that means more space is needed to bring in other carriers like Frontier, Alaskan Airlines or Southwest.
“The airport’s just a big landlord and the airlines are our big tenants,” Vicari said. “When your tenant comes to you and says ‘Hey, if you build more space, we’ll lease it’, you want to build more space. Fortunately, there is real hope for the first time in a long time. The airport recently closed on a 12.5-acre parcel of land just to the north of the existing terminal building that will allow the airport to nearly double the amount of airline offices and facilities in self-funded construction phases from its existing revenues of fees and rents charged to airlines, rental car companies and concessionaires as well as parking revenues. “We have to incrementally expand everything—it’s not like there’s one major red flag and everything else is fine,” Vicari said. “We need to get to the point of a facility where we can handle 400,000 people a year.”
Ground has been broken on the first phase of construction and Vicari estimates the first expansion to be completed later this fall. Whether and whenever the necessary improvements happen, the airport’s existing tenants aren’t waiting for more space to offer more flights. The options for travelers have improved over the years. United currently offers service to Denver while American Airlines flies from Durango to Dallas/Ft. Worth and Phoenix. Both airlines will offer trial routes this summer: United will fly to and from Houston and Chicago on Saturdays through October 24, while American will add temporary routes to Los Angeles and Chicago. Saturday is typically the slowest day for airline travel as business travelers tend to fly during the week and most vacationers are usually already on vacation by Saturday. Vicari said the costs for the new routes should be competitive with the larger airports—somewhere in the neighborhood of $520 during the summer peak season—but offer the aforementioned conveniences to offset any discrep-ancies in price.
“Most people probably won’t fly from Saturday to Saturday, but maybe leave on Monday via the regular Denver flight and then take one of the new non-stops back on Saturday,” Vicari speculated. Vicari said with the new real estate in place he and his staff will complete a modified master plan by the end of this year and he’s optimistic that after 20 years of growing pains, there’s an end in sight.
“The reality is that airfares aren’t set by airports, they’re set by airlines,” he said. “The only way the airport can affect fares is to facilitate competition. I have limited space to lease to a new carrier. This isn’t a ‘If you build it, they will come thing’, it’s if you don’t have the space, you’re guaranteeing they’re not going to come. Just because we’re doing this project doesn’t mean we’re going to have someone to fill that extra space, but it gives us a more viable recruiting tool. You can have a great market but if you can’t logistically serve it than that’s a waste of time. At the end of the day if there are passengers in the seats, that’s the drive and they say ‘Bingo - let’s do it.’”
Story written by: Ted Holteen Photos Provided by: Durango-LaPlata County Airport