TELLURIDE — With two undisclosed airlines interested in providing new commercial jet service into the Telluride Regional Airport in time for the 2010/2011 ski season, a coordinated effort is underway to convince the federal government to fund the final phase of the airport’s ongoing runway improvement project one year ahead of schedule.
The airport is due to receive up to $25 million in discretional funding from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 to complete construction in 2012 that will increase the airport’s safety rating thanks to reduced runway grades and wider safety areas, according to John Micetic, Chair of the Telluride Regional Airport Authority Board.
The upgrade will have the additional benefit of enabling the TRA to accommodate certain commercial aircraft it currently cannot. Among them is the Bombardier Q400, which both of the undisclosed airlines are scheduled to take delivery of in the fall of 2010, he said.
“There is a possibility that Telluride could be an area they’d like to serve,” Micetic explained.
But if those aircraft were unable to fly in and out of Telluride until one year later, then a major window of opportunity to acquire commercial air service in this far-flung destination resort could close as the airlines allocate the planes to other routes.
“The timing is very critical for us,” said Tom Hess, chairman of the Telluride Montrose Regional Air Organization. The TMRAO has been in discussion with the two airlines for several months.
“We have one airline that is pretty strongly committed at this point,” that could provide service once a day during the winter and summer seasons; the second could run multiple flights a day year-round, he said.
As the nation’s highest commercial airport, the thinner air density here limits the types of aircraft that can be flown into the TRA. Additionally, weight restrictions to compensate for the thin air can mean that the flights that do service Telluride don’t run at full capacity and are less profitable as a result.
“We’re limited in who we can get to deal with us,” said Hess, who described the possibility of two new airlines committing resources here as “monumental.”
“If we miss this opportunity I don’t know, quite frankly, when it could happen again,” he said.
As a result, the TRAA board decided it would ask the FAA to accelerate funding for the final phase to 2010 for construction to terminate in 2011. That way the airport would be capable of handling Q400 traffic at the same time as the two airlines add them to their fleets, Micetic explained at an intergovernmental meeting last week.
“The work that has to be done in 2011 under the present schedule could be completed next year,” he said, clarifying that the proposal would change nothing about the existing construction schedule other than to accelerate it and would result in no further airport closures.
But when TRAA board members contacted the FAA Denver Airports District Office to try to secure final construction funding early – whether through the agency’s discretionary monies or with economic stimulus funds – their request was denied.
“In essence, until Congress actually provides the dollars in an annual budget, an agency cannot expend any money against the ‘approved' project,” said FAA Northwest Mountain Region Spokesperson Mike Fergus.
“Thus, until actual funds are provided by Congress for the construction phase, we can only undertake the 'design' phase (slated for 2010) at this point for which we have funds.”
So Micetic asked elected officials from San Miguel County and the Towns of Telluride, Mountain Village and Norwood present at the intergovernmental meeting to write to Colorado’s Congressional representatives to step up pressure to receive the funding in 2010.
“Right now our airport is heavily reliant on general aviation; it would be better to get more commercial aviation,” said San Miguel County Commissioner and TRAA board member Joan May in support of the effort.
“The urgency is about the aircraft,” Telluride Town Manager and TMRAO board member Frank Bell explained.
“If the Telluride Regional Airport can’t handle the Q400 when the airlines receive them, they’ll be assigned to another air market,” he said.
“Once those planes are sent to other markets then we’re out of luck.”
Hess said that aides to Colorado’s national representatives are working to “help us navigate the waters” of Washington to find the funding the airport needs.
“We’re still waiting to hear if we need to take a contingent to Washington,” he said.
And if the effort is not successful, “We’ve got to hope and pray that we can talk somebody into flying into Telluride the next year,” said Micetic.