TELLURIDE – Extending Telluride Regional Airport wintertime operating hours until at least 9 p.m. and allowing operations from 6 a.m. throughout the entire year is essential to attracting commercial air service to the mesa-top facility to properly serve the community, and without it the airport risks losing $1 million in annual federal funding upon which it depends.
Additionally, because federal laws and regulations require that operating hour restrictions apply to all aircraft without discrimination, any change to those hours would have to apply to both commercial and general aviation operators.
Those are some of the core findings released last Friday in a report compiled by a subcommittee of the Telluride Regional Airport Authority Board of Directors formed nearly four months ago to investigate a highly controversial, proposed expansion of wintertime operating hours at TEX.
“We need to do everything we can to attract additional commercial flights,” said report co-author John Dwight.
One major means of accomplishing this would be by allowing night flights at the airport, where the present curfew for both commercial and general aviation flights extends from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset, year-round. As a result, summer flights can land as late as 9 p.m. while winter flights terminate as early as 5:20 p.m. on the shortest days of the year.
Provided they materialize, the 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 without forcing the airline to miss out on the chance to run at least one additional operation and earn the associated revenue – thus providing an incentive to commercial airlines to fly in and out of TEX, and ultimately boosting the number of passengers that board flights leaving the airport each year, known as “enplanements.”
That enplanement number must remain above 10,000 annually, lest the airport lose the $1 million in federal funding that presently makes up 58 percent of its capital budget.
But in potentially extending those night hours, “We are looking to extend them for both commercial and general aviation because we don’t believe we can separate out the two without a lot of issues,” Dwight said.
Crucially, the report findings finally shed some light on a months-long debate between night flight proponents and opponents that questioned whether the airport could legally limit the expanded operating hours it has been considering only to commercial operators as the TRAA Board had hoped it could – according to the report, it may not.
In addition to enabling the airport to meet its minimum enplanement threshold for the $1 million in federal funding, the report predicts the airport stands to net $235,000 in profits from commercial and general aviation fuel sales by operating until 9 p.m between November and March.
Besides bringing real economic benefit to the airport, the community would also stand to gain from the extended hours, according to the report findings.
Those benefits include better air access that would act as an incentive to draw tourism here as opposed to competitor resorts, and capturing guest spending that is presently being diverted to grocery, liquor and sports stores in Montrose because of better commercial flight availability there.
“The benefits to the Telluride community from having both a commercial and general aviation airport less than 15 minutes away are considerable,” the report states. “The negative impacts to the community are considered to be minimal.”
Yet despite the purported benefits of extended nighttime operations, a vocal contingent of the community, largely airport neighbors, remains opposed because of concerns such as noise and light pollution and, above all, safety.
Many of them gathered on Monday evening at the Wilkinson Public Library to discuss the implications of night operations, however, none of the TRAA board was present.
While interested citizens are expected to turn out en masse to discuss the report when the TRAA board next meets for its regular meeting at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 17 at the airport, a public hearing dedicated to the matter is not scheduled to take place until Thursday, March 24, at 10 a.m., during a special meeting also taking place at the airport.
If, at that time, the TRAA board votes to proceed with a change to airport operating hours, it will seek the concurrence of the San Miguel Board of County Commissioners because the county co-signs all FAA grants and shares grant obligations with the TRAA. Reporting out of executive session yesterday, County Attorney Steve Zwick confirmed that the commissioners intend to request that the TRAA defer any final action on operating hours until the two entities have had an opportunity to discuss the BOCC's various concerns.
The board does not expect that FAA approval of the changes would be required.
To view the TRAA subcommittee report and related appendices visit: www.tellurideairport.com/traa-board.html.