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First phase of Durango airport expansion complete

Project finishes on time and on budget ahead of larger Phase 1B
Tony Vicari, aviation director at Durango-La Plata County Airport, describes features of the newly built and recently opened east wing of the airport terminal. The east wing is the first of two phases to expand the terminal. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The first United Airlines passengers exited Durango-La Plata County Airport’s new east wing terminal on Thursday, marking the end of a yearlong construction project to expand the terminal.

Phase 1A includes changes such as a new boarding gate, expanded seating areas, new bathrooms and another post-security concessions stand.

A crowd of almost 100 community members toured the new building during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

It is the first phase of a roughly $36 million project that seeks to add 24,000 square feet to the 40,000-square-foot building.

“It’s just accommodating growth,” said Aviation Director Tony Vicari. “The airport terminal was built in 1988 and our passenger traffic has increased 150% since that time.”

Load factors have been on the rise at DRO. Last year, the airport saw record-breaking numbers of passenger traffic. There were 431,828 passengers that traveled through DRO in 2023, an 8.7% increase over the previous record set in 2021.

Coupled with Durango’s influx in population, the airport had to accommodate for greater demand. Last year, United added two Airbus A319s servicing Denver to meet strong passenger demand.

Durango City Councilor Jessika Buell cuts a ribbon Wednesday as part of the grand opening of a Durango-La Plata County Airport east wing terminal expansion. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

One of the big changes coming in the next two years is the removal of the temporary tent structure that houses the airport’s American Airlines terminals. The tent takes up about 50% of usable square footage post-security.

“It’s just kind of trying to catch up with 35 years of growth in the market and making sure that we are able to accommodate the evolutions we’ve seen in the airline market,” Vicari said.

But in order to do so, the airport had to remodel its east wing to redirect traffic to that side of the building while the west wing was under construction.

A waiting area inside a recent expansion area of the Durango-La Plata County Airport terminal. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Phase 1B will update the baggage claim area, add a new TSA screening area and add four American Airlines gates with seating areas. The estimated budget for Phase 1B is $28 million.

Project construction has been entirely funded by airport revenue via unrestricted reserves of the airport enterprise fund and available federal and state grants, Vicari said.

The $7 million Phase 1A has two sources of funding. A majority of the funding came from a $5.1 million federal grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. That was part of a 2021 bipartisan bill passed to fund the modernizing of airport infrastructure.

DRO chipped in $1.8 million from fee revenue generated by the airport. It includes fees paid by the airlines, leasing rental car space and parking fees.

Vicari said Phase 1A was completed on budget.

“We really have to redesign the facility to accommodate modern airline traffic,” he said. “And that involves larger aircraft in particular, and being able to handle not groups of 50 or 70, but groups of 150.”

Tony Vicari speaks to community members on Wednesday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Durango-La Plata County Airport’s most recent terminal expansion. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

Colorado Division of Aeronautics is slated to contribute over $600,000 into the overall project for phases 1A and 1B, he said.

There are still some loose ends to tie up with Phase 1A.

“We’ll be renovating some of these bathrooms in our old United gate area,” Vicari said. “Those get renovated and replaced with family restrooms and a nursing mother’s room.”

The airport is likely to start construction on Phase 1B by late summer or early fall. Construction will take up to 27 months or a little over two years.

“It’s hard to believe that I got to Durango 42 years ago, and the terminal hasn’t changed a whole lot (until now),” said Durango Chamber of Commerce CEO Jack Llewellyn.

While Durango’s growth has been a driving conversation in the airport’s expansion, Llewellyn said it is unlikely Durango will experience expansion at alarming rates.

“I hate to use the word substantial,” he said when discussing Durango’s growth over the next 20 years.

He doesn’t see 10% growth as a possibility during that time because of the high cost of housing.

“We need to maintain being a real community and having living options for those that are the teachers, the firefighters the plumbers,” he said.

Modernizing airport infrastructure increases Durango’s appeal, especially for prospective businesses looking to relocate, Llewellyn said.

Tony Vicari, aviation director at Durango-La Plata County Airport, demonstrates the new faucets in the restrooms that dispense soap, water and contain a hand air dryer in the newly built and opened east wing terminal. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Having a more reliable service and things of that nature, like larger airplanes for the connecting aspect, it can just add to the positive aspects of a growing community,” he said.

Durango-La Plata County Airport is one of 14 commercial service airports contributing to the state’s aviation economic impacts.

The airport provides over 2,700 jobs and contributes close to $300 million in yearly revenue, according to the most recent Colorado Aviation Economic Impact Study.


A United Airlines plane sits outside the newly built and opened east wing terminal on Thursday at Durango-La Plata County Airport where United Airlines will service passengers. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

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