Local airport receiving backing in Washington

Brett Berntsen
An airplane taxis down a runway Friday at the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – The Four Corners Regional Airport is receiving backing in Washington, with members of New Mexico's congressional delegation working to secure its funding through 2017.

This week, U.S. senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats, voted to pass a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, which contains a program that would provide $1 million in funding for the airport. The money is typically allocated to airports that serve at least 10,000 passengers a year, but Udall pushed for an exemption for small terminals like Farmington's. Heinrich supported the provision.

Udall said in a statement that the airport provides a “critical link” for regional communities.

“While many small carriers are cutting back flights, our rural airports still need funding for maintenance and essential upgrades,” he said.

Four Corners Regional Airport Manager Mike Lewis says an FAA bill recently adopted by the U.S. Senate would help the airport complete important paving and erosion-control projects.

Airport Manager Mike Lewis said the funds will help complete important paving and erosion-control projects this year.

The airport has seen as drastic decrease in passenger traffic recently, dropping from 14,000 travelers in 2014 to about 3,500 this year, Lewis said. He attributed the downturn to 2013 FAA regulations that increased the number of training hours co-pilots need to fly. The mandate makes it difficult for carriers to find co-pilots with the 1,500 hours of required flight time, he said.

Great Lakes Airlines, Farmington’s lone commercial carrier, made an effort to work around the rule by removing about half the seats on its planes. That change pushed the aircraft into a class that can be flown by pilots without as many logged hours. It also resulted, however, in a decline in ticket sales and fewer passengers moving through the airport.

Great Lakes has asked the FAA for an exemption allowing the airline to carry more passengers, but that request is still being processed, Lewis said.

The push for heightened pilot training came from the families of victims killed in the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407.

Lewis said airline industry officials explained to lawmakers the potential impacts of the restrictions, but the regulations were adopted anyway.

“Everyone predicted this would happen,” Lewis said. “It’s only going to get worse and start impacting larger carriers.”

In addition to commercial flights, the Four Corners airport also caters to cargo, military and medical aircraft.

A portion of the Four Corners Regional Airport Runway 23 is pictured Friday in Farmington.

Lewis said FedEx and UPS planes come and go daily, as do air ambulances from the San Juan Regional Medical Center. The hospital relies on the airport to evacuate patients from remote parts of the region, Lewis said. Securing funding for the airport will allow those services to continue, he said.

But while the Senate’s FAA bill passed with overwhelming support, the situation in the House looks different.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has drafted an Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization Act, which would privatize air traffic control operations and relegate the FAA to a safety enforcement role.

Rep. Ben Luján, D-N.M., is working to include a measure in the House bill that would also fund small, regional airports, according to his spokesman Andrew Stoddard.

Ultimately, the two bodies must pass a single measure that would be sent to the president for his signature.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.