FARMINGTON — Officials said Farmington's partnership with Great Lakes Airlines will likely bolster the Four Corners Regional Airport as companies nationally shift to higher-capacity planes and larger cities, leading to fewer regional commercial flights.

 

"I think we're going to continue to stay in the business," said Bob Campbell, assistant city manager and acting airport manager.

The city is updating its Airport Master Plan to brace for this and other national trends anticipated over the next 20 years. The document guides the city's spending, identifies aviation trends and outlines potential federal government investments and necessary additional infrastructure, such as hangers or fueling stations.

A passenger plane sits on the tarmac in a file photo from Jan. 19, 2012, at the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington.
A passenger plane sits on the tarmac in a file photo from Jan. 19, 2012, at the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington. (Daily Times file photo)

Some data outlined in the plan is ominous.

In the 2011 fiscal year, nearly 50,000 fewer passengers flew from the Four Corners Regional Airport than in fiscal year 1990, according to the plan. The 2004 plan called the drop an "air service crisis."

According to the plan, regional airlines nationally are switching from turboprop and piston airplanes to 50- and 90-seat jets, and those airlines are flying longer routes as a result. The change has drawn traffic from airports with "thin activity" to regional hubs, such as the Albuquerque International Sunport, according to the plan.

The Boyd Group, a consulting company that specializes in the airline market, anticipates all regional jets in the next decade will have at least 100 seats.

Mesa Airlines and Air Midwest ended operations at the city's airport in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Great Lakes is the only airline currently serving the airport.

But Campbell is optimistic. Great Lakes, he said, fills a void.

Monica Taylor-Lee, Great Lakes director of public relations, agrees.

With many larger airlines beginning to skip regional airports, Great Lakes and other privately owned companies can begin to pick up the slack, Taylor-Lee said. The trend, she said, started several years ago.

Farmington’s Four Corners Regional Airport aircraft control tower is seen on April 23.
Farmington's Four Corners Regional Airport aircraft control tower is seen on April 23. (Daily Times file photo)

Farmington has two components that could justify an expansion of Great Lakes, she said. The city already houses enough people -- about 45,000 -- to meet passenger demand, she said. By 2015, San Juan County's population is also expected to reach 140,523 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an 8 percent increase from 130,044 in 2010.

The city's airport also serves a niche, Taylor-Lee said. Area residents who choose not to drive to the two other nearby airports -- the Durango-La Plata County Airport and Albuquerque International Sunport -- are close to the city's airport.

But the company has no specific plan or date for an expansion, she said.

"As soon as we have the ability to do that, we'll look at it and make it happen," Taylor-Lee said.

Campbell said he anticipates an expansion of commercial flights in the second or third quarter of 2014. Contracting with other airlines, though, is unlikely, he said.

Great Lakes owns 28 19-passenger planes and six 30-passenger planes, Taylor-Lee said. It employees about 1,000 workers, she said.

Great Lakes flew 16,322 passengers from the city in 2012, she said. And just as many passengers, if not more, flew back into the city, she said. The airlines makes four flights a day.

Each year, the city qualifies for a Federal Aviation Administration grant if its airport flies 10,000 or more passengers, Campbell said.

The airport's annual operating budget this year is $525,677, according to its fiscal year 2014 budget. Campbell said officials expect airport revenue this year to be $497,900, which means the city will subsidize nearly $28,000.

"It almost pays for itself," he said. "It's not a very costly operation for all the headaches."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.