FARMINGTON, N.M. — One result of the economic downturn was a significant drop in the number of people flying.
Recently released passenger data from regional airports across the southwest, however, shows that this trend is changing, and Farmington is leading the pack.
According to the data, based on outbound domestic passenger numbers released by airlines, Farmington's Four Corners Regional Airport saw 14,010 outbound passengers during 2011, up from 11,710 in 2010.
The 20-percent jump was one of the highest increases of all southwestern regional airports, and airport officials say it makes a big difference when it comes to getting federal funding.
"Anytime we go over 10,000 enplaned passengers annually as an airport, we are eligible for a significant increase in discretionary funding," said Airport Manager Ben Trujillo. "There are a lot of airports in the state of New Mexico that wish they were in our position."
The increase in passengers practically guarantees that Farmington's airport will receive at least $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration discretionary funding, which airport officials plan to use for important infrastructure improvement projects.
"We will use it to help pay for our new snow plow, buying a new airfield sweeper and building a new snow removal equipment building," Trujillo said. "We are also in the design phase for a new airport ramp, which is the spot where Great Lakes Airlines parks their planes."
That isn't the only federal funding the recent increase makes more likely.
Extending runway five has long been on the city's wish list because it would provide the extra room needed for small jets to be able to land and take off. That would allow the airport to add flights to places that currently are out of reach.
The problem is that the extension, which is on the city's list of capital improvement projects, has a whopping $23 million price tag.
To get federal funding for the project, the city has to demonstrate a need for the extension, and increasing passenger numbers are a big help.
"There really has to be a demonstrated need up front," Trujillo said. "We are at that threshold already. Passenger growth is definitely a step in the right direction."
Officials can't pinpoint a specific reason more people are choosing to fly, but the phenomenon isn't limited to Farmington. All across the Southwest, airports are seeing passenger numbers increasing.
"I think that, generally speaking, the economy has stabilized," Trujillo said. "Without a doubt, most of our traffic is driven by the local community. We have also partnered with Great Lakes Airlines to do more advertising in the community, which has helped, as well."
Trina Froehlich, a senior consultant for Mead & Hunt, Inc., a company that provides market analysis for airports and has worked with Four Corners in the past, believes that improvements in the nation's economy are directly responsible for the recent increases.
"It's really coming back to the levels from before the recession," Froehlich said. "Airports all over the nation have been seeing an average increase between 10 and 15 percent. Farmington's increase was well above average, however."
It certainly makes Great Lakes Airlines happy.
"For us, over last year, we have actually seen a 39-percent increase, which is just huge," said Great Lakes Airlines Regional Sales Manager Mary Osborne. "It's wonderful. We aren't sure what's contributing to it, but I think that it's really part economic improvement and part high gasoline prices."
Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.daily-times.com