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Cortez Municipal Airport slowly recovering from pandemic downturn

The Cortez Municpal Airport provides airline service to Denver and Phoenix. (Jim Mimaiga/The Journal)
Essential Air Service contract is up for bid this year; manager hopes for airline with more capacity

The Cortez Municipal Airport is slowly rebounding from travel impacts caused by the pandemic and is seeking ways to increase use.

In 2021, the number of passengers who boarded Boutique Air and private planes hit 6,500, compared with 5,600 enplanements in 2020, an increase of 16%.

However, passenger numbers have not recovered to prepandemic levels.

In 2019, 8,300 passengers flew out of Cortez, up from 7,600 in 2018, a 9% increase.

“2020 saw a huge decrease in travel, then it started to pick up in February of 2021,” said airport manage rJeremy Patton.

Boutique Air operates a modern fleet of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, a product of Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus Aircraft Ltd.

In December 2021, 460 passengers flew out in December, compared with 414 in December 2020 and 680 in December 2019.

The pandemic wiped out the momentum of the airport’s climb toward 10,000 enplanements, Patton said, but a gradual rebound is underway.

The 10,000-passenger threshold opens the door to $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration funding for airport infrastructure improvements, which Patton said is needed to attract regional airlines that offer additional destinations.

To boost usage and expand service, Patton is advocating for an airline with an aircraft that exceeds Boutique Air’s eight-passenger single-propeller planes.

“We can only do so much on these aircraft. Our challenge is to increase enplanements,” he said. “Demand is increasing. Ideally, we need a small or midsize jet with 30-passenger capacity.”

The Cortez Municipal Airport has adequate runway for a midsize jet, Patton said, and charter planes of that type already utilize the airport.

Boutique Air has provided passenger service from the Cortez to Denver and Phoenix under a Essential Air Service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2015.

EAS contracts pay qualified airlines a federal subsidy to operate in rural areas in order to provide residents a link to major transportation hubs. Cortez is one of three EAS airports in the state along with Alamosa and Pueblo.

Boutique’s five-year contract is up in fall 2022. The contract renewal process is facilitated by the U.S. Department of Transportation with input from the airport and community.

A request for proposals will be issued this year for the EAS contract to serve Cortez, Patton said, and interested carriers are expected to submit bids in spring.

There will be a 30-day period for community input that will include residents, businesses, tourism groups, the airport board and staff, and the Cortez City Council.

The Cortez Municipal Airport is run by the city of Cortez. It is one of three Essential Air Service airports in Colorado to offer airlines a federal subsidy to operate in order to provide service to rural areas. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

The information is compiled, and a recommendation is submitted to the Department of Transportation, which makes the final decision on which airline is awarded the EAS contract.

Overall Boutique Air has had reliable service in Cortez, Patton said. Disruptions caused by the pandemic and a pilot shortage have impacted service somewhat, as it has across the industry.

The flights to Phoenix have been popular, Patton said, with some preferring it as a hub over Denver International Airport.

Cortez competes with Durango-La Plata County Airport, which offers more flights and destinations. Patton said the convenience, easy parking, and short security lines attract passengers to the Cortez Airport.

Boutique offers car rentals at the airport. Enterprise in Cortez will deliver rental cars for customers at the airport.

The Cortez airport has two full-time employees, 10 to 12 TSA agents, and five staff in the flight school.

A plan to expand

Patton envisions airport expansion and upgrades to accommodate increased demand.

Resurfacing the main runway is a priority. The improvement would allow heavier planes to use the airport. The runway project is in the engineering phase and the work is planned the coming years. Funding will come from federal, state and local sources.

The terminal at the Cortez Municipal Airport. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Other long-term plans are to expand the terminal and upgrade navigational technology. Building a second “crosswind” runway would better serve general aviation needs. Taxi-way improvements, additional parking for private planes and hangar space are in the plans.

The airport has potential to spur economic development and aviation education, Patton said.

He is working with local schools to develop aviation career programs. Expanding the flight school at the airport is a goal, including adding a flight simulator.

“We could be a facility to get new pilots, mechanics and air traffic control started in the business,” he said. “There are a lot of good jobs in the aviation industry.”

The Four Corners Fall Fly-in was held for the first time this year at the airport to boost community involvement and interest, and the event will continue.

Aug 19, 2022
Passengers treated to soaring views at Cortez fly-in
Aug 19, 2022
Cortez Airport receives $633,102 in federal aid

The airport is used as a tanker base by the Bureau of Land Management for firefighting efforts. Helicopters and single-engine tankers load up on fire retardant to drop on wildfires in the region.

Interesting aircraft that land at the airport include larger charter jets, along with Chinook, Osprey and Apache helicopters.

“We are in a ideal location regionally and offer diverse services, but we could offer so much more,” Patton said.