Not only did 2011 bring sharp debate over how to improve service to Telluride Regional Airport, regarding approvals for extended hours of operation; it also brought the loss of a major airline carrier and the threatened loss of important airline guarantee funding.
Threats to air traffic in and out of the region made constant headlines in 2011 and is the No. 2 story of the year.
“We need to do everything we can to attract additional commercial flights,” Telluride Regional Airport Authority Boardmember Jon Dwight said in March, after the organization released a report recommending wintertime operating hours at TEX. The report heightened an already heated debate pitting those determined to make the airport as economically viable as possible against those wanting to keep the nighttime flight curfew in place.
Proponents of extending wintertime operating hours until 9 p.m. and allowing operations to begin at 6 a.m. pronounced the new hours essential to attracting more commercial air service to TEX, by increasing enplanements. Later winter flights made possible by extended hours could conceivably allow a plane to overnight at the airport for an early- morning departure the following day, giving airlines to run at least one additional round-trip operation, ultimately boosting the number of passengers on flights in and out of the airport.
Those enplanements are crucial to TEX; should passengers drop below 10,000, the airport loses $1 million in the federal funding that makes up 58 percent of its capital budget. Opposing the extended hours, a group known as No Night Flights Network filed a lawsuit against Telluride Regional Airport Authority, and took to the internet as well, with a petition charging that “night flights will adversely impact our pristine environment, are inherently less safe and are in direct conflict with representations and promises made by the TRAA to the County Commissioners, to the airport’s neighbors and to the public at large.”
With postponed decisions on the nighttime curfew at TEX, along with a prolonged debate over the matter, the difficulty of keeping passenger flights coming into Telluride took center stage in September when US Airways announced it would not provide its Phoenix-Telluride service for the 2011/2012 season.
This crucial blow to the airport meant it would lose approximately 3,500 passenger seats during the winter season. While additional United flights into Montrose Regional Airport were secured to soften the blow, making the 10,000 enplanement mark now seemed to be an even harder goal to reach. “To us, [losing the US Airways flight] was a bombshell,” Airport Authority Chairman John Micetic said. “If we stay positive, though, we are going to recover most of those potential seats that were lost. Our number one concern is what this will do to this community’s economy. Anytime you lose service, it hurts.”
If that wasn’t enough, the TMRAO found itself in 2011 in the midst of a funding gap needed to sign airline contracts for the winter season. To guarantee flights into Montrose and Telluride, the organization was forced to go hat-in-hand to the business communities of Telluride, Montrose, and Ouray County to ask for additional funding. In doing so, TMRAO gave presentations to describe the current situation in which an enormous increase in gas prices has created a “new normal” for airlines. This increase raises the cost of guaranteeing flights and is therefore the catalyst for the funding needed.
As to how well the fundraising efforts remain to be seen as the 2011 winter season is just under way and the number of visitors flying into both TEX and MJT is not yet known.
In 2010, the two airports were The Watch’s number seven story of the year as both made significant improvements. As the number two story of 2011, air transportation into the region looked toward survival at a time when the region’s tourism economy desperately needs it for its own survival.