EDITORIAL: ‘Airport 101’ … Part One

We are listening to Kate Alfred, manager of the Archuleta County Airport, making her quarterly report to the three County commissioners — Steve Wadley, Michael Whiting, and newly-elected commissioner Ronnie Maez — during a scheduled work session. Also present are County Administrator Bentley Henderson and the usual suspects from the local media.

It’s the morning of January 24, and we’re all probably feeling a bit tired from shoveling snow.

Ms. Alfred:

“I told Bentley that I would combine my quarterly report with sort of an ‘Airport 101.’ Just hit the high points, since Commissioner Maez is not yet familiar with the airport — and we always have a lot of questions come up that are easier to answer, if you know what the answers are.

“So. The five most common questions, at the Airport. We’ll take the first one first.

“Does the Airport have, or will it ever have, commercial service? That is to say, an airline, either regional or national? And the answer is: No. And there are two main reasons why that can’t happen.”

Ms. Alfred had spread a large drawing of the airport facility, including the main 8,000-foot runway which runs pretty much north-south. The Federal Aviation Administration, more affectionately known as the FAA, annually provides billions of federal dollars to airports, for initial construction and for airport improvements, typically in the form of matching grants — and the Archuleta County Airport at Stevens Field has benefitted, on a fairly regular basis, from those federal dollars, matched by County taxpayer dollars.

The ‘Airport 101’ class at the County Administration offices on January 24, 2017, From left, Commissioner Ronnie Maez, Commissioner Steve Wadley, Administrator Bentley Henderson, Airport Manager Kate Alfred.

Ms. Alfred is now pointing to the Airport Master Plan map.

“This is actually the runaway… and this is the approach to the runway, that the airplanes have to have. This is for non-precision approaches.

“Commercial airlines use precision approaches, and this narrow orange square would look more like this, when that happens.”

She indicated a much wider area with her hands.

“Unfortunately, terrain and development around the airport make it so that there’s no room to expand to allow for precision approaches. There’s a huge subdivision right here, and Pagosa Lakes and everything else is down this way — there is just no way to allow for precision approaches without relocating the airport.”

Stevens Field, one of the more scenic small airports in the world.

“The rumor is, that when the airport was first laid out, many many years ago, they had a choice of three locations — two down Piedra Road and one at the current location. The people who were sort of in control at that time decided that they didn’t want major growth in the county. This is decades ago.

“You hear a lot of stories, and no one seems to be exactly sure, but the rumor is that this location was deliberately chosen so that it would never have commercial traffic coming in and out.

“So in order to have commercial traffic, we’d have to relocate.”

To suggest such a relocation might be slightly preposterous, considering that the County and the FAA have invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $22.7 million in capital improvements at the Archuleta County Airport since 2002.

Ms. Alfred:

“The other thing is, our airport — and all airports that are not privately owned — are financed mostly by the FAA. The FAA has a market research division, and they define a distance from the nearest commercial airport. We’re only 50 miles, as the crow flies, from the Durango airport.

“So the FAA supports us, and they support Durango. But a commercial airport requires a tremendously larger amount of money than a general aviation airport. So the FAA would look at [a proposal to begin commercial flights to and from Pagosa] and say, ‘You guys have only 50 miles to get to a commercial airport, and we don’t think you have the market here, for us to invest.’

“So even if we relocated the airport — which would be tens of millions of dollars — I don’t think we could get it approved by the FAA. Because we are too close to Durango, and we don’t have the market.

“So. That’s the answer.”

An answer pretty much based on facts. I’ve listened to a fair number of airport reports over the past ten years, and these facts as stated by Ms. Alfred — regarding the possibility of future commercial air traffic in Pagosa Springs — align fairly accurately with what I’ve heard in the past.

The next part of Ms. Alfred’s ‘Airport 101’ discussion, however, wandered quickly into the misty realm of opinion. She apparently wanted to provide a factual answer to a couple of other questions that Commissioner Maez might be getting from community residents on a regular basis:

“Why, in a community of 12,000 people with a seriously deteriorating roadway system, has the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners spent millions of taxpayer dollars upgrading and maintaining a 8,000-foot runway and a $3.2 million airport terminal, to benefit — according to the Airport Advisory Commission’s own report — approximately 43 local residents?”

And:

“Why doesn’t the airport pay its own way? Don’t we have a County policy that user fees should cover the cost of the services provided? Why did county taxpayers subsidize the operations of the airport facility to the tune of $658,000 in 2016 — when the airport users themselves contributed less than $120,000?”

Ms. Alfred handed Commissioner Maez a copy of the Airport Advisory Commission’s 2012 Economic Impact Report.

“This is for you. The other commissioners have already seen this. It basically will explain to you why the airport is probably the Number One economic driver in this county.”

This may strike some of our Daily Post readers as a somewhat outrageous claim — that a facility with a typical operating budget of $250,000 (out of a County budget of $28 million) is “probably the Number One economic driver in this county.”

We will look a bit more closely at Ms. Alfred’s claim in Part Two.

Read Part Two…

Share

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.