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FARMINGTON – Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation announced today that the public-use airstrips in Shiprock and Aztec will receive nearly $1 million in federal funding for facility upgrades.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who serves on the senate committees that fund transportation infrastructure, said in a press release that the money is part of a series of grants that will provide "needed" improvements at a total of 11 small airports across the state.

The Shiprock Airstrip will receive $350,000 toward runway paving projects, while the Aztec Municipal Airport has been awarded $475,020 for repairs to its taxiway. Shiprock will also receive $135,000 to conduct a survey establishing updated approach routes.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in the press release that developing air infrastructure can boost economic activity in rural areas, “particularly throughout Indian Country.”

Arlando Teller, the acting deputy director for the Navajo Division of Transportation, said repairs to the Shiprock facility will complement the tribe’s master plan to improve its air transportation network.

“The airstrip hasn’t seen improvements for some time,” Teller said. “But we like to say it has good bones, or a good foundation to build on.”

Teller said Shiprock serves an important role as a medical airlift hub for more than a dozen surrounding communities. The airstrip has also been identified as potential resource for promoting tourism and commerce in the area.

“Airports are considered economic engines,” Teller said. “They create jobs and opportunities.”

Officials in Aztec anticipate airport improvements will bring similar benefits to their community. City Manager Josh Ray said the Aztec airport’s taxiway hasn’t been serviced for decades and contains chunks of loose asphalt that can damage plane propellers.

He said the repaving project, combined with the recent addition of an automated fueling station and a new runway built in 2010, will make the airport the prime destination for civil aviation in the region.

In addition to promoting public airstrip improvements, Sens. Udall and Heinrich have also worked to support the area’s role as a commercial hub. In April, they pushed for a provision granting $1 million in federal funding to the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington, even though it didn’t meet the volume requirements of 10,000 passengers per year.

Airport Manager Mike Lewis said the money will go toward paving and slope stabilization projects.

The airport has seen a drastic decline in passengers recently, dropping from 14,000 travelers in 2014 to an estimated 3,500 this year, according to Daily Times archives.

Lewis attributed the downturn to a pilot shortage caused by a 2013 Federal Aviation Administration rule that increased the number of training hours required for co-pilots. This prompted Farmington’s lone commercial carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, to remove half their seats, pushing their planes into a class with less vigorous training requirements.

In October, Great Lakes asked the FAA for a special exemption allowing them to carry more passengers.

Lewis said the request is still being processed, but the lengthy delay could be a sign that the FAA is at least considering the request.

“Once they get that exemption, they’ll be off and flying again,” Lewis said.

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

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