STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Susan Miller’s excitement about picking up an old friend turned into a bit of stress when she struggled to find a parking spot at the Durango-La Plata County Airport nine days prior to Thanksgiving.
“That surprised me – I had to drive around the lot, but I finally found one,” said Miller, who lives in Farmington.
For the Thanksgiving weekend, only the early birds are likely to find parking at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Travelers are urged to arrive two hours before their flight.
On regular weekends, the main parking lot has been filling up by Thursday, the credit card or long-term parking lot is full by Friday, and the overflow parking lot is at capacity by Saturday. So the rush is expected to be exponentially worse during the holiday weekend.
Ron Dent, airport director, advises travelers to get a ride to the airport rather than drive themselves and to always think a few steps ahead, such as printing boarding passes and paying luggage fees online before arriving at the airport.
Security lines at the airport have been extending outside the door.
In the mad dash to board the plane, airline passengers have been known to leave their cars in the loading and unloading zone with their keys still in the ignition.
Growth by bounds and leaps
The airport can accommodate 1,000 parked vehicles, but the problem is, the airport has been growing by about a 1,000 passengers a month.
Boardings are expected to be up 5 percent for the year, totaling about 185,000. Departing airplanes are averaging loads of 75 percent capacity.
“Our boardings are booming, up 10 percent in the last two months,” Dent said.
“We boarded 17,412 passengers in October, that’s equivalent to our summer months two years ago,” he said. “This used to be a shoulder season. We’re not seeing that any more.”
The airport expects to take in about $1 million in parking revenue this year, which is a lot considering it costs $6 to park a day. Parking should cover about a third of the airport’s total operating costs.
Parking, however, is not a simple business.
One reason why the airport contracts with a management company, Republic, is that people are so savvy at cheating the system and getting out of paying the parking fees.
Because the airport has a lot of land, it is likely to build a seasonal overflow lot in the near future, which would be in addition to the planned $6 million expansion of the terminal, Dent said.
A short-term solution might be to provide public transportation to the airport, but Dent estimates that only about 40 percent of the passengers come from Durango. Most passengers come from around the region, such as Farmington, Pagosa Springs, Bayfield, Silverton and even Telluride.
And, it also would be difficult to coordinate public transportation times with airplane departures since airplanes can be subject to last-minutes delays and travel changes.
Planes, cars and bicycles
For ease of travel, Dent also suggests catching a ride with a private airport shuttle, which range from $15 to $30 or more for a one-way ride, according to an informal survey of local services.
John Nadolny of Animas Transportation is gearing up for a crazy holiday rush, anticipating a big demand from college students.
“They all think they can wait until the day of,” he said. “I get some panicked calls – ‘My ride didn’t show up. My flight leaves in a half an hour. When can you get here?’”
Some start celebrating the holiday early and are in no shape to drive themselves.
“A young lady I picked up said, “Geez, I thought I would be sober by now,’” he said.
A perk to using a private shuttle is that travelers won’t have to worry about digging their car out of the snow when they return to Durango from a winter trip. They can have a warmed-up shuttle to pick them up if they have made a reservation.
“It becomes a convenient thing more than anything,” Nadolny said.
People also will go to extremes to save a buck. In bicycle crazy Durango, it’s not unheard of for travelers to pedal the 14 miles out to the airport.
The airport will store the bicycle in a warm spot if the traveler makes arrangements ahead of time, Dent said.
Of course, people are much less likely to cycle to the airport in the winter, but another option is to catch a ride to the airport and then leave a bicycle there for the return trip home.
From the airport to Durango, “it’s all downhill,” Dent said.