The Durango-La Plata County Airport set a record number of passenger trips in 2021, while forecasts say Colorado is expected to lead the nation in the return to pre-pandemic levels for flights in February.
According to data shared by Airlines for America, a business advocate for the U.S. airline industry, Colorado is projected to have 4% more flights in February than in February 2019.
Tony Vicari, aviation director at DRO, said the Mountain West region of the United States, including Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, was one of the strongest areas for airline passenger travel as far as returning to pre-pandemic levels.
But in December 2021, Colorado experienced a 13% decline in travel numbers from December 2019, shortly before the pandemic hit. Wyoming was the only state on the mainland United States to surpass 2019 numbers this holiday season with a traveler demand uptick of 8.5%. Wyoming was surpassed only by the Virgin Islands territory, which had a 14% increase in traveler demand.
The Durango-La Plata County Airport met earlier projections and reached a record number of airline passengers in 2021. A total of 397,293 passengers flew out of DRO last year, a little more than twice as many as in 2020.
Vicari said he expects trends from 2021 to continue through 2022, although they may moderate a little. Leisure travel was the dominant reason for flying out of DRO, followed by family visitation, while business travel floundered.
“I still think there is, to some degree, pent-up demand that exists nationwide for air travel,” he said. “Realistically, the traffic both here and nationally really took off in the late second quarter and early third quarter in 2021, so it’s only been about half a year or so since travel has really surged back near and at times above pre-pandemic levels.”
Vicari said a slow increase in business travel is likely as more businesses get back into the motion of sending employees out for meetings, service calls and contract work to and from the Four Corners. Although he expects an uptick, he doesn’t think business travel will climb back to pre-pandemic levels this year.
“On the flip side, I think you’ll continue to see strong leisure travel demand, but probably backing off a little bit,” he said.
Vicari anticipates multiple years will pass before a “full reset” back to pre-pandemic trends occurs – if it occurs at all. He said permanent shifts in the market are possible.
The airline industry, like many others, was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020. Vicari said 2022 passenger travel got off to a slow start because of major airline disruptions that occurred with the omicron variant’s outbreak over the holidays and into January.
“Our January traffic is down about 10 to 15% from pre-pandemic levels here in January,” he said.
Disruptions were caused nationwide by staff members being out sick with the omicron variant, he said. Like other businesses, airports and airlines are affected by the pandemic, too.
But, the omicron upset was short-lived, for now, he said. Traffic patterns have evened out and become more consistent than in the first couple weeks of January. Still, Vicari said potential COVID-19 upticks are expected to ripple across the first quarter of 2022.
Vicari asked for customers’ patience through pandemic-caused disruptions. He said the airport will continue to practice public health protocols and follow the federal mask mandate that remains in place for all airports and aircraft across the country.
Air travelers are asked to make sure they bring their masks to DRO and follow the mandate.
He said passengers have also been cutting it awfully close in terms of arriving just 30 to 40 minutes before their flight is scheduled to depart.
“We also continue to remind passengers to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes prior to their scheduled departure,” Vicari said. “We have historically seen a lot of people trying to cut it close on their arrivals.”
While DRO is a smaller airport and often a convenient one for quickly getting through airline check-in and Transportation Security Administration screening, people must make sure they are allowing time for those processes, he said.