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Aviation industry lobbyist touts benefits of rural airports during Farmington visit


Ryan Waguespack says pandemic has had silver lining

FARMINGTON — A top official of a Washington organization that lobbies on behalf of the general aviation industry touted the potential of rural airports during an appearance here May 6, describing how the COVID-19 pandemic has helped such facilities re-establish their relevance.

Ryan Waguespack, senior vice president of the National Air Transportation Association, told a crowd of approximately a dozen people gathered at an Atlantic Aviation hangar at the Four Corners Regional Airport that the aviation industry suffered greatly in the immediate wake of the pandemic. But shortly afterward, he said, it became evident that the changes brought about by the spread of the virus also would present some opportunities that the industry — especially its general aviation sector — could take advantage of.

General aviation is a catch-all phrase that captures the portion of the airline industry that does not include passenger or military traffic.

"It's been fascinating what the pandemic has done," Waguespack said.

Initially, aviation industry business "fell off a cliff," he said, when the pandemic hit. But within a few months, it became obvious that there was a silver lining for the general aviation industry, which benefited from the need for the rapid transportation of personal protective equipment and other freight, as well as air ambulances and other health care-related services.

As the pandemic dragged on, rural airports continued to benefit, Waguespack said, pointing to the additional air traffic generated by the shipment of vaccines and the growing trend of many people living in population centers wishing to relocate to smaller, more remote communities.

"Everybody's refocusing on where we want to live and how we want to live," he said.

Waguespack believes the Four Corners Regional Airport, which does not have a passenger commercial carrier, is well positioned to benefit from those conditions. Airport manager Mike Lewis said that already may be the case, pointing to the heavy traffic the facility saw in April, which he described as the busiest month of his tenure.

Among the crowd members was Arvin Trujillo, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, who told Waguespack the pandemic has forced the region to redefine itself economically.

"We've been energy focused," he said. "We're asking ourselves what assets do we really have here? … We're looking at how we redefine the airport here."

Trujillo said when he was a youngster growing up in Farmington, the airport was a much busier place, offering passenger flights to numerous destinations. That has changed over the past several years, he said, but he believes Farmington can become much more of a transportation and commercial hub than it is. He said the return of passenger service at the airport would help achieve that goal, along with the establishment of a railroad spur and the wide availability of broadband Internet service.

He noted he has seen a surge in the number of Native people who left the region for many years for careers and who now are considering returning to the area as they enter retirement age. But many of those folks are bringing with them higher expectations for transportation and infrastructure amenities, he said.

"They want the same services they had when they lived in Albuquerque or Los Angeles," he said. "We've got to find ways … to support that. This is part of that."

Waguespack said the trend Trujillo was describing was music to his ears in terms of illustrating the benefits of rural airports. He said not every community is as supportive of small airports as Farmington is.

"It sounds like you guys see the value of the airport," he said. "I love that."

Lewis provided an update on efforts to bring back a passenger air carrier to the airport, which he said were derailed by the pandemic. He said the airport had reached an agreement with Skywest Airlines to begin providing passenger service from Farmington to Denver in May 2020, but that plan was postponed by the spread of the virus. He said the airport and the airline have remained in a holding pattern ever since.

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"Maybe this summer," he said, expressing hope for some movement on that situation.

In the meantime, the airport will be completing an overhaul of one of its runways this summer so that if and when passenger air service does resume, it won't be hampered by the closure of the runway for a month, he said.

"We're kind of on the edge," Lewis said. "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens this summer."

In an interview with The Daily Times after his presentation, Waguespack addressed the possibility of rural airports seeing some additional funding if President Biden's infrastructure package makes it through Congress.

"I think they will get some money," he said, but he added that nothing concrete seems to have emerged from early discussions on that topic.

He said the degree of community involvement and commitment to the airport that he sees in Farmington is the best thing the Four Corners Regional Airport has going for it.

"That city leadership being involved, the communication and engagement with one another — those are the (communities) doing it incredibly right," he said, explaining that the general trajectory of such facilities has been very much upward since last summer.

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.