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Passenger numbers break record this summer at Durango-La Plata County Airport

Business travel is down, but leisure excursions skyrocket
Durango-La Plata County Airport saw record-breaking travel numbers this summer (June to August) with a total of 137,124 travelers arriving or departing at DRO. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The 2021 summer season boded well for Durango-La Plata County Airport, which reached new heights in terms of the number of departing and arriving travelers who went through the airport from June to August.

The airport experienced a record-breaking number of travelers for the summer season with a total of 137,124 travelers recorded during those three months, 18% higher than the previous record for summer travel set in 2014.

Tony Vicari, director of aviation at DRO, said the rollout of vaccinations and relaxed travel restrictions this year were a significant component of the return to travel not just in Durango but nationwide.

“Obviously, travel was deeply suppressed through 2020 due to the obvious impacts of the pandemic, and the surge of travel and recovery that we’ve seen in our market and in many markets nationwide is certainly attributable to that pent-up demand that existed as we emerged from the most severe impacts of the pandemic,” Vicari said.

Summer is historically the busiest season for DRO, Vicari said, and much of that travel is family-, vacation- and leisure-based.

Between 2014 and 2019, summer travel ebbed a bit, Vicari said, with traffic picking up slightly through other seasons because of local and business-based travel. But with the emergence of COVID-19, business travel suffered and, Vicari said, it still remains “deeply suppressed” in Durango and nationwide because of the pandemic.

Vicari said the return to above pre-pandemic travel numbers affects the airport in a number of positive ways, from financial stability to providing insight about what the airport needs to accomplish to facilitate present and future air travel to and from the La Plata County area.

“It certainly brings stability in terms of the airport operating budget in terms of revenue generation,” Vicari said. “The airport is an enterprise fund of the city, meaning we’re fully self-sustaining and reliant upon our revenues that we generate through traffic at the airport to sustain our operations. That’s certainly positive news for us to see that strong recovery and our subsequent ability to stabilize our financial position.”

Vicari added that the increase in travel numbers from 2020 to 2021 affects airport preparations in terms of capital planning to ensure the facility can accommodate current and forecasted air travel demand.

Along with projected future air travel demand, Vicari said the airport is on the cusp of initiating a formal design project for terminal infrastructure design.

The Terminal Design Project is expected to take the better part of a year to finalize, and that process will include opportunities for public input.

What the Terminal Design Project is examining

The terminal planning project is looking at expanding the airport building to the north of its existing footprint with plans to expand forward incrementally over time, Vicari said.

The idea is to expand in a phased manner, triggered by demand and the airport’s ability to invest in individual phases, he said.

The first phase of development will be an expansion of post-screening hold rooms and departure gate areas and is anticipated to unfold on a budget of about $5 million, although that is a preliminary estimate.

Vicari described Phase 1 as “relatively modest,” and said those areas are under the most constraint because of capacity limitations and potential congestion during peak periods such as the summer months.

“This process will be, like most of the things the airport does, be done in a public environment,” Vicari said. “... Our Airport Advisory Commission meetings occur monthly and are public meetings. At almost every meeting, we’ll be discussing where we’re at in this design project, and there’s opportunities for public comment. We anticipate holding at least one public open house in the upcoming months there, scheduling to be determined.”

cburney@durangoherald.com

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