By Karen Frantz
February 12, 2011
Congress is considering legislation that would help improve service at small airports like the Durango-La Plata County Airport, according to Colorado’s senators.
The Federal Aviation Administration bill, which is being touted as the first jobs bill of the 112th Congress, also aims to reduce flight delays and protect air travelers. Congress has stalled on a new FAA bill for three years, leaving small airports in doubt about their funding.
“This bill will make air travel more reliable for passengers and ensure that Colorado’s airports continue to be economic engines for our state and communities,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. “The bill will also ensure continued improvements and growth already visible at the Durango-La Plata Airport.”
The bill is currently being considered by the Senate, with the House expected to consider its own bill within a week.
The FAA reauthorization measure would preserve grant funding for large-scale airport improvements and repairs that many small airports rely heavily on to keep up with passenger growth. The Airport Improvement Program covers 95 percent of such project costs for small airports.
“That pretty much is our lifeblood,” said Durango-La Plata County Airport Aviation Director Ron Dent. “Very, very few small communities have the wherewithal to fund those kinds of projects.”
The Durango-La Plata airport receives about $1.5 million per year from the program. In recent years, the program funded taxiway construction and other projects, with the rest of the money coming from stimulus funding.
Such funding has been vital for keeping up with the average 12 percent growth in passenger traffic over the last three years at the Durango-La Plata airport, Dent said.
FAA reauthorization would also help airports transition to using satellite technology for air traffic control, called NextGen, to more effectively track planes and cut down on delays.
About 11 percent of flights at Durango-La Plata County Airport departed late in 2010.
The Colorado Department of Transportation already has plans to install high-tech air traffic control units in airports across the state, including the Durango-La Plata airport, which will be NextGen capable.
Many in Congress and in the aviation community hope the legislation will pass quickly and painlessly. Long-term authorization for the FAA expired in 2007, with 17 short-term funding extensions since then.
“Enactment of this legislation has been delayed for three years, and it’s crucial that we get this done now,” said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.
Dent also said that FAA reauthorization is long overdue.
“We need to have a new reauthorization that allows us to plan for the future because right now we can’t,” he said. “You’re not sure whether to roll over some funds to combine with the following year’s funds because if they change the program, we could lose those funds.”
The Senate and the House both passed FAA reauthorization bills last year but were unable to agree on some controversial differences between the bills. None of those provisions are expected to be included in either bill this year, making it more likely that FAA reauthorization will pass.