Holiday flying

Travelers can help themselves by arriving early, carpooling, but more parking needed

The Durango-La Plata County Airport is a splendid local success story. With four airlines connecting to three major hubs, travelers enjoy a level of service almost unheard of for communities the size of those our airport serves.

That very success, however, now threatens that good service. And holidays only exacerbate that.

Travelers can help themselves greatly simply by arriving early, especially during holiday peak travel times. Airport authorities are urging passengers to show up two hours before their scheduled flight time and to go online ahead of time to print boarding passes and pay additional luggage charges. Anything travelers can do to ease the parking jam by carpooling or using public transportation is also encouraged.

The problem is simple: With the rapid growth of passenger traffic, the airport has outgrown its terminal and parking lot.

For a number of reasons, chief among them its central location and expanded service, Durango’s airport has become the regional airport for Southwest Colorado and much of San Juan County, New Mexico. With that, passenger volume has grown greatly in recent years – up 10 percent in the last two months alone. As the airport director, Ron Dent, told the Herald, the number of passenger who boarded planes in October – 17,412 – was equivalent to a busy summer month just two years ago. The airport is on track to top 185,000 passengers for 2012, a yearly average of more than 500 per day.

A $6 million expansion of the terminal is planned with a new concourse and additional gates. With that will come a larger area for security and more parking.

Those last two are the most serious problem areas now. The airlines are serving Durango with larger planes than in years past, and they tend to schedule flights at around the same times as the other airlines. That means several times a day the security screening operation is swamped – and the line to get through it is long.

A long-term solution will have to wait for the expansion; there is no room for a fix now. In the meantime, passengers just need to allow more time. That explains the recommendation to arrive two hours before flight time.

Getting there early does little to help the parking problem, however. It might get the earliest arrivals a spot, but the lot still cannot handle everyone. To address that the airport should step up.

The nature of airline schedules, the vagaries of arrivals and departures, local geography and the fact that fewer than half the passengers come from Durango make public transportation problematic. Carpooling works for people traveling together. Having someone else drop you works, too, if that can be worked out. But none of that solves the larger problem.

The usual issue with parking is a lack of space, but the airport has land and some of its neighbors have parking lots typically under-used in the winter months. Could a little imagination – and perhaps a shuttle bus, some gravel or a short-term lease – provide a temporary solution? The airport has options and should look into them.

For now, though, the best advice for travelers remains: Get there early. Cooling your heels at the gate may be boring, but it is far better than anxiously watching the clock or the frustration of missing a flight.