The number of passengers traveling through the Durango-La Plata County Airport decreased 49% in 2020, but the airport is recovering faster from the impacts of COVID-19 than many U.S. airports.
The airport’s busiest year on record was 2019, when it handled 390,506 passengers. The significant decline in passenger traffic in 2020, to 197,886 passengers, is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the airline industry, said Tony Vicari, Durango-La Plata County aviation director.
Passenger traffic across the United States was down 61% in 2020 from the previous year, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
“Just looking at Colorado airports, the regional airports across the state have, in general, fared better than the Front Range airports like Denver International and Colorado Springs largely due to the fact that the larger Front Range airports tend to be more reliant on business travel and international travel, which have been harder hit by the pandemic than leisure travel,” Vicari said.
DRO is matching passenger numbers at Grand Junction Regional Airport and underperforming airports in more strictly tourist and skiing destinations, such as Steamboat Springs, Vail, Gunnison and Montrose, Vicari said.
“Some of the more pure tourism-driven airports have seen some pretty good resiliency, in particular Gunnison and Steamboat, from the data I’ve looked at,” he said. “They have outperformed most of the airports in the state, ourselves included, and that’s probably due to the fact that so much of their traffic is tied up in pure in-bound visitation tourism. That’s been one segment of the market that’s been more resilient. Whereas place like Durango is more balanced traffic historically with a mix of business and leisure travel.”
In general, the popularity of outdoor recreation has meant that regional airports in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Idaho have been among the strongest performers during the pandemic, Vicari said.
Still, the decrease in passenger traffic has impacted the airport’s budget, but money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act has exceeded the amount of revenue lost from decreased passenger traffic, Vicari said.
Budgets are being finalized for 2020, but Vicari anticipates the budget deficit to be between $350,000 and $400,000.
For 2021, Vicari said the airport is conservatively budgeting for continued impacts from COVID-19 to leave the airport with a budget deficit between $500,000 and $600,000.
CARES Act funding for the airport, however, should more than compensate for lost revenue, with $2.5 million received from the federal stimulus bill.
In addition, Vicari said another federal stimulus bill, passed in December, includes more funding for airports. The Federal Aviation Administration has yet to determine disbursement amounts to regional airports, he said.
The airport is a self-sustaining entity, operating as an enterprise fund by the city of Durango. It is funded solely through fees and revenue from airport tenants and users, including airline rent and landing fees, terminal concessions, ground leases and parking fees. The airport does not receive any local tax funding.
“Budget-wise, we’re doing OK. COVID definitely had significant impacts on our operating revenue in 2020,” he said. “We don’t have the final numbers penciled out just yet. But it’s going to be down about 30% overall.”
He added: “We were in a good cash position heading into the pandemic, with well over a year of cash on hand in terms of operating expenses. And then we were buoyed by CARES Act dollars that were made available to commercial service airports back in March, that helped to plug that gap and allow us to continue to maintain all of our staffing, and continue to push forward with core operations.”
To conserve money, the airport delayed many capital-improvement projects, and is budgeting conservatively for 2021, Vicari said.
“We’re keenly attuned to being conservative on our budget to make sure that we can hang on through this thing and come out as a sustainable institution. We’ve always been an operation that runs in the black,” he said. “And we anticipate, hopefully, we’re getting back to that place in probably 2022.”
Airline passenger traffic experienced unprecedented declines at the onset of the pandemic. Passenger activity at DRO in April was only 5% of pre-pandemic levels, marking the low point for air travel demand.
Later in spring and summer, traffic recovered steadily, and by October, traffic at DRO was 59% of pre-pandemic levels.
Traffic during November and December settled back to 51% of pre-pandemic levels as concerns rose about public health conditions locally and nationally.
Overall passenger traffic recovery at DRO has outpaced the national average since July, routinely running 15 to 20 percentage points above the domestic average for the duration of the year, Vicari said.
While commercial airline passenger traffic numbers decreased sharply in 2020, DRO remained open throughout the pandemic to support other aviation services including:
Emergency medical flights.Air freight flights.U.S. Forest Service air tanker base.Military flights.General aviation activity.Some airport activities proved more resilient to the pandemic’s economic impact. Air freight activity was up 3% in 2020, rental car gross revenues were down only 19% for the year and non-airline aviation fuel sales were up 26%.
While some capital projects were delayed, DRO did fully renovate five public restrooms, complete an update to the Terminal Area Development Plan, upgrade the airport water treatment system and complete a $3 million reconstruction of the airport’s commercial aircraft parking apron.