Roger Zalneraitis on Airport Ballot 1B – Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion: Roger Zalneraitis, Executive Director La Plata County Economic Development Alliance – Airport Ballot 1B Guest Opinion

As the director of the Economic Development Alliance, we have been strong advocates for a new terminal at DRO.  Being on the front lines of the debate has also exposed me and our volunteers to a lot of questions from people all over La Plata County.  Melissa has done a magnificent job of addressing almost all those questions.

There are two I’d like to discuss in more detail.  The first is the changes coming to the airline industry itself, the second is the ongoing discussion of “why aren’t we funding this with a sales tax”.

Changes to Airplanes and Why this Matters

Many people have noted that there seem to be fewer problems at the DRO terminal this year than in years past.  That’s because we have lost seats flying here.

In 2014, Frontier was flying in an Airbus 319, which held about 130 passengers.  United was flying Q-400 twin-engine aircraft, that held between 76 and 90 passengers.  American was flying in smaller jets, but at our peak times we were trying to offload and onload 300 or more passengers at once.  This volume was well beyond our terminal’s capacity, and resulted in numerous breakdowns both for passengers and the employees.

Flash forward to 2016.  Frontier is gone, and we now have at peak times two 50 seat aircraft from United, and two 50-70 seat aircraft from American.  Peak traffic is rarely more than 200 passengers getting on and off the planes at once.  It can still get crowded, but it is relatively manageable.

The problem is this: the 50 seat aircraft are going away.  From 2013 to 2015, the airline industry reduced the number of 50 seat aircraft by 25%, while increasing its 70+ seat aircraft by 31%.  And these trends are continuing.  Delta, for example, recently announced that it was getting rid of all their 50 seat aircraft.  Skywest, which flies for both United and American, has more than 400 aircraft on order that are 76 seats or larger, and none on order in the 50 seat range.  And starting at the end of this month- October 2016- United will begin flying 76 seat planes back into our market.

When we get to four 76 seat aircraft, our terminal will be back to the conditions we were in back in 2014.  At 90 seats or more (the next class up for regional service), our terminal will fail.  At 110 seats or more, we have to start parking planes sideways because of the ramp size and that risks reducing our service from four flights to three, or three flights to two.  That means less competition and likely higher fares for all of us.

You may ask if this trend to move to larger aircraft will continue?  It will, because it is being driven by three factors.  First, the larger aircraft are more profitable.  Second, they are more efficient- they lower costs and reduce delays.  Third, there is a national pilot shortage being driven by federal regulations that is requiring airlines to put more passengers on fewer flights.  None of these conditions are going to change in the foreseeable future.

The airlines have told us that they value the flexibility to fly in the size of aircraft they think is right for the market.  They cannot do that here.  As they shift their fleets to larger aircraft and reduce the number of planes they are flying, Durango will become less and less desirable to fly into.  At some point, reductions in service are very likely… if we don’t fix our terminal.

Sales Tax vs. Property Tax

A lot of people have told me that they would be in favor of the terminal if only a sales tax was being used instead of a property tax.  I heard three reasons for this: 1) the people who use the airport should pay for it, 2) they wanted to pay as little as possible, and 3) they didn’t want people who were struggling economically to be hurt by the tax increase.  The perception is that a property tax violates these values, and a sales tax doesn’t.

When I started working on this issue I largely agreed with this perception.  But I changed my mind for three reasons.

First, about a year ago I analyzed the numbers to find out how much more expensive the terminal expansion would be for the average household in La Plata County if a property tax was used instead of a sales tax.  I was very surprised to learn the average household in La Plata County would pay more for the terminal if this was a sales tax increase instead of a property tax increase.  In fact, the tax increase would be 50% higher!

Why is that you ask?  The reason is, households pay about one-third of all property taxes in La Plata County (the rest is paid by second homeowners- tourists- and businesses).  But, households in La Plata County pay half of all taxable sales.  That means residents are more affected when sales taxes go up, than property taxes.

Second, when we commissioned a study by Colorado State University (CSU) on the airport, they looked at the impact of a property tax vs. a sales tax.  Again, to my surprise, they found a property tax would have a smaller economic impact than a sales tax.  They also found that a sales tax would hit low income households harder than a property tax.

Finally, when you consider that property taxes are primarily paid for by second homes and businesses, it becomes apparent that a property tax lines up closer to the value of “those who benefit should pay” than a sales tax does.

So does a sales tax or a property tax more closely meet our values?  Our perception is that a sales tax meets our values, but in reality, a property tax does.

Bringing the Two Issues Together

The average household will pay $50 per year if this terminal expansion passes.  The CSU study found that about $119 million in wages are generated annually in La Plata County as a result of good air service.  That works out to about $4,500 for each household in La Plata County (90 times more than the average household will pay in taxes).  And visitor spending from people who fly here generates almost $5 million in local taxes each year – taxes that benefit our roads, schools, fire districts, and more.

The income we gain, and taxes we receive from visitor spending, is at risk if we flight service falls or goes away at our airport.  The property tax is small and more closely aligned with our values than a sales tax is.

Are we willing to risk our income and public services over a tax increase that is 90 times smaller than our benefits?  I think that’s being “penny wise and pound foolish.”  I don’t think it’s a risk we should take, I hope you agree, and I hope you will join me in voting YES on Ballot Item 1B this November for a new terminal for our community.

Thank you for your time,

Roger Zalneraitis
Executive Director, La Plata Economic Development Alliance



  • Denise

    If indeed, the average household will only pay $50 per year, it certainly makes sense to approach this via property taxes. I spend more than that in gas and food just driving to the Albuquerque or Denver airport to fly out of those hubs instead of Durango. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to do that anymore?

  • Jen Hilburn

    Thank you, Roger, for outlining these points in a simple, logical fashion. I think they are so important. I have added my thoughts about the importance of the airport in terms of attracting non-oil-and-gas businesses to the area to Melissa’s original article.

  • Nancy Shanks

    What a fabulous summary, Roger. I’ve not read this level of detail on what is happening in the industry. I was already sold on our need for a new terminal but this information just confirms the challenges with what exists. Thank you.

  • Scott McClellan

    A professional pilots view
    I commute in and out of Durango twice a week and I would love to back a plan to improve local air traffic, but the fact of the matter is very little will be accomplished with this proposal and with huge expense. La Plata County Airport is in definite need of a face lift but this is a $80 million dollar (if it stayed on budget) mostly terminal proposal. Increasing efficiency in and out of our airport is going to require a plan that includes a Tower, Radar, Ramp, Taxiway configuration changes as well as different navigational approaches to and from our current runways. This integral part of the system has to be in place BEFORE any increase in traffic will be realized, regardless of the aesthetics and size of the terminal. In my opinion, improvements need to be made but it needs to start with the infrastructure described above. Please note that my perspective takes into account my experience as a pilot who has flown in and out of Durango as a regional pilot, the industry trends, my current airlines business model and my personal investment in improving air traffic in this community.
    Thank you
    Scott McClellan
    Captain, Southwest Airlines

  • Ryan Williams

    Wow. I am glad that someone who really knows about airlines and air travel is in on this conversation. Thank you Scott for being a voice of reason here with all the misinformation that has been spread by the people wanting this new airport. I’ve known for some time that the tower at DRO is unmanned, and wondered how that would impact all of this. Scott, please spread this information. I don’t want to see us wasting our tax dollars here.

    What Rodger is saying here, and has been saying for a while is that the new higher capacity aircraft take up more space on the tarmac reducing our capacity to overnight aircraft. What he has neglected to tell you is that the new aircraft have more seats per row and fly faster than the old Q-400 (Commonly called a Dash 8) aircraft. A Q400 has a Wingspan of 93ft, and a length of 107ft. While the ERJ 175 flown by United Express is 1ft more wingspan, and 4ft shorter. The MRJ 90 that they say will be coming is 2 ft wider, and 10 feet longer. These differences are insignificant.

    They tell us that during the busiest times in the airport (6am) things are going to get worse because United is moving up to larger (no more 50 seat planes) later this month. What they aren’t telling you is that the 6:00am fight is already a 70 seat (CRJ700) aircraft, and has been for a very long time.

    Those of us that fly out frequently at that time of the morning know that TSA rarely opens up both security lanes. That the lines are still much shorter than the lines at any other airport, and there never is a shortage of space to sit while you are waiting for your flight.

    If we need more deicing capacity, buy another deicing truck. We do not need to spend $80M for what we really need.

    What fractured fairy tale math says $4,500 per year will come to my household from this? Durango is not a Fly to tourism destination. I don’t care if you have the coolest airport in the world. Most of the people I chat with on planes when I fly in and out a few times a month are other business travelers that live here traveling out for work.

    Lastly, Why do those of us that live here want to build a bigger airport and increase growth in Durango? We live here because we like it this way let’s not encourage it to grow any faster than it already is. Why are we listening to people that have only lived in Durango for a few years telling us to build a bigger airport.

    Vote NO on 1B

    Thank you Melissa for creating a forum for this discussion.

    Ryan Williams

  • Roger Zalneraitis

    Hi Scott-

    Thank you for your comments and when can you get Southwest to fly here so you don’t have to commute anymore? 🙂

    I spoke to the airport director to get his perspective on your concerns. On the tower, he notes that we are a non-towered airfield, but that is common with small town airport like ours and doesn’t affect the efficiency of arrivals and departures. Our airfield functions under a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), and aircraft on the ground can speak directly with Denver Air Route Traffic Control, and pick up active control soon after takeoff. Any Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays that occur at DRO are due to ground holds at destination airports, and a tower at DRO will not change this.

    On radar-in 2013, a FAA and CDOT partnership resulted in the installation of Wide Area Multilateration (WAM) technology at DRO. This technology allows ATC at the Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center to view aircraft all the way to the surface at DRO. This resulted in increased safety and efficiency.

    On the ramp and taxiway, I would personally ask you to look at Chapter 4 of the Durango Airport Master Plan. The taxiway is not an issue for service. Regardless, a new taxiway and ramp are planned for the new terminal (as the terminal will be on the other side and the ramp *must* be bigger than what we have- that is a known problem being addressed).

    On navigational approaches – DRO currently has a published Instrument Landing System (ILS) and Area Navigation (RNAV) approach to Runway 3. These two approaches allow for low visibility takeoffs and landings. Runway 21 does not have a published instrument approach and while DRO would ultimately like to see this, it is not something that causes significant issues, outside of a day with the unique combination of low visibility and extreme southerly winds. (which hasn’t happened here in years)

    Scott, I would also point out that with regard to an increase in traffic, based on our current configurations Chapter 4 looks at our capacity to handle both VFR and IFR at peak hours as well as annual trips. With 20 years of growth ahead of us, the plan concludes that we would (20 years from now) still be well under 50% of the airport’s maximum safe capacity for arrivals and departures, both at peak hours and total operations throughout the year.

    Chapter 4 does recommend improvements to navigational aids so those will be addressed over the coming years. For these reasons, I think many of the concerns you have, have been identified and where necessary are being addressed.

    The terminal remains a challenge because of the one dozen failure points at peak hours, the lack of ramp space for larger aircraft and support services, safety with TSA and General Aviation, and our inability to expand if passenger counts continue to grow. That’s why there is such a focus on the terminal.

    Safe travels Scott and we hope you get back to town soon!

  • Mac Patterson

    From the an Airline Employee Perspective (one that actually worked there)
    The airport terminal has failed and needs to be replaced, plain and simple. I worked at the Durango airport 10 years ago as an agent and now work in IT at a major airline. I have flown into Durango hundreds of times since I left Durango and I have flown all over the country and work next to a hub airport now. I can tell you that the airport was running close to capacity back then; now it’s beyond what it was designed for. All areas of the terminal have problems and the ramp area needs to be expanded. The airport staff are doing a great job keeping the building going but it’s not going to be long before it will take millions to keep it up to standard. I have talked with folks in Durango and other airports and while I respect Scott’s comments that other areas of the airport need more attention that isn’t the case. Traffic at the airport will have to increase by huge amounts before things like a tower are required/needed. Yes that is correct, there is no Control Tower at Durango and hasn’t been except when we have airshows and the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds bring their mobile tower. Trying to modify/remodel the current terminal will lead to huge issues for travelers and employees, trying to expand on the west side of the runway is very limited, the only option is to build on the East side. Please vote YES for a better travel experience, vote YES for a safer terminal, vote YES for building a new building that will be built with growth in mind, vote YES to show the airlines and the travelers that we care about our airport and the economic impact it has on our community.

    If I was still living in Durango I would be happy to be paying the property taxes.

    Thank you,
    Mac Patterson

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