$6 million airport expansion prepares for takeoff

A $6 million expansion project at the Durango-La Plata County Airport is waiting for takeoff as officials struggle to accommodate rapid growth amid turbulent times.

Passenger boardings have increased about 80 percent since 2004 when the airport served almost 100,0000 passengers. Last year, the airport accommodated 175,000 passengers.

A proposed expansion calls for 12,000 to 16,000 square feet of departure lounge space with two sets of restrooms, food concessions, a newsstand and gift shop. The current departure lounge would be reconfigured to accommodate two security lanes.

Because financing would depend on revenue from an airport tax of $4.35 per ticket paid by airline passengers, officials worry a drop in passengers would imperil debt-service payments.

“We’ve seen a lot of scary things happening out there,” said Ron Dent, the airport’s director of aviation, during a joint meeting Tuesday of the La Plata County Commission and the Durango City Council, which share jurisdiction over the facility.

Turbulence could come in many forms, officials acknowledged. Profit margins in the airline industry are pretty tight. Airlines are continuing to consolidate. An airline might terminate or reduce local service.

One reason for the airport expansion would be to accommodate the airlines’ transition to bigger, 100-seat planes as the result of rising fuel costs.

Because of uncertainties, airport officials leaned toward a go-slow course of using a federal aviation grant to pay for 90 percent of the project’s $800,000 design costs.

Once the design is complete in October or November, airport officials will evaluate how to proceed with the county commission and City Council. They will have to decide on financing options. They could always scale back the project. One fear was having to shutter a newly built terminal for lack of need.

So the timing of new amenities is unclear even as airport officials acknowledged demand, such as consumers complaining about not being able to buy food after passing through security.

An additional security line also is needed, Dent said.

“When somebody comes in with a gun, the security line is shut down,” Dent said. “Guess what, your plane is delayed.”

Travelers likely will have to walk outside to their planes for the foreseeable future.

While the terminal will be designed to accommodate loading bridges, it is not clear how soon the airport would be available to afford them, Dent said.

Each loading bridge costs about a half million dollars, but Dent acknowledged they’re “expected at a real airport.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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