Christopher Short is sitting in a booth at the Santa Fe Airport Grill, eating a late lunch with pals Jennifer Winkel and Laila Nabulsi. In a little more than an hour, Nabulsi is flying out to Los Angeles, via the nonstop jet to Phoenix.
"It's fantastic," Nabulsi says of the airport terminal. "It's like a train station. I love small airports."
"I don't think they get much smaller," Short chuckles, tucking into his lunch.
Nabulsi flew into Albuquerque from LA to start her trip. But for convenience, she's flying back to California out of Santa Fe. It didn't require much more effort than checking a box on an internet travel site.
Short, who has lived in Santa Fe for a little more than a year, didn't even know it was an option.
"I don't know why," he says between bites of a burrito. "I guess I just never thought of it."
In fact, Short mistakenly believed that a flight from Santa Fe would necessarily connect through Albuquerque. He's only ever flown in and out of that city's International Sunport.
Santa Fe has only a handful of direct commercial flights linking it to major airports—to Dallas, Denver and Phoenix—but the city, the business community and the tourist industry are hungry for more. City and county governments are willing to shell out cash to guarantee full-flight revenue for airlines when all seats aren’t sold. Businesses as far away as Taos Ski Valley have kicked in money, too.
When those flights land, though, passengers are greeted with a mixed experience. It's something everyone seems anxious to fix.
Santa Fe's terminal building looks the way a small airport terminal is supposed to look. From runway 2-20, the northeast-southwest strip of pavement that handles nine out of every 10 flights, the control tower commands the horizon above the low, flat, stuccoed terminal building. Its windows are tinted against the high desert sun, canted outward with an antenna array forming a crown.
It's not just the aesthetic of the place that charms, it's the experience. Passengers deplane not into a sterile jetway, but onto the tarmac. The weather is right there. The fresh air. The ground. It's quintessentially New Mexican.
Get inside that terminal, though, and things are less quaint.
Oh, it's still a cool vibe. The place opened in 1957 and there's reportedly still adobe in some of the walls. The sliding glass doors at the end of the terminal get propped open on nice days and, combined with a southerly wall of windows, natural light floods the place.
That's a good thing, because it's tiny. If you're tall, you can practically reach from the rental car counter to the United Airlines ticket kiosk on the other side of the terminal. The dozen or so seats outside the secure area fill up fast. There's only one TSA checkpoint, and it's not always open. The cafe serves solid airport fare, but seating there is limited, too. Like Nabulsi said, it has an old-school bus terminal vibe—a nice one—but it'd be small even for that.
Santa Fe is at a crossroads. A recent state study says better than 80 percent of the people who buy an airline ticket to visit Santa Fe actually fly to Albuquerque. There's plenty of room to grow, and doing so could give the city and the region an economic shot in the arm. But the community needs to figure out how to manage that feat without throwing money after ever-shifting airline routes and endless improvements to buildings, roads and runways.
It just might succeed.
Santa Fe Municipal Airport Manager Cameron Humphres has the perpetually busy look of a guy with an ever-expanding job description. His smile comes easier than you might expect, though. His tidy office is testament to his past career in the Air Force. So, too, may be his apparent comfort with the fact that it's in a manufactured building that has taken on an air of permanence.
Comfort or no, Humphres has more to do than worry about where his desk is. He started the job in March 2016 and has hardly had time to catch his breath.
Nearly one-fifth of the state's flight traffic comes through Santa Fe. That's an astounding amount, considering the airport handles just three round-trip commercial flights a day between Santa Fe and Dallas, two with Denver and one with Phoenix.
The vast majority of the traffic in and out of Santa Fe is accounted for by private planes. And it gets fancy. On a recent visit, former British Prime Minister David Cameron's jet was on the tarmac. Texas tycoon Trevor Rees-Jones' plane glided into town a few weeks back. Partners in Goldman Sachs and Hollywood directors park their planes in the sun and enjoy Santa Fe's fineries without most of us ever knowing they were here.
Those who enjoy that rare air may never see the inside of the terminal. Their flights are handled by two fixed-base operators; private flight companies Jet Center at Santa Fe and Signature Flight Support. Flanking either side of the terminal, the operations each have well-equipped, swanky lobbies, lounges and business centers. This is overstuffed-leather-chair, here's-a-courtesy-car, bring-your-dog, grab-some-mouthwash-in-the-bathroom territory. For a host of reasons, the Santa Fe airport works pretty well for the jet set.
For the masses, though, there's some work to be done.
"We want to make this the airport of choice for people who are traveling to and from Santa Fe and the Northern New Mexico community," Humphres tells SFR.
Right now, it isn't close. Humphres says the last time he saw a fare comparison, Santa Fe was within $20 of Albuquerque on many flights. Add time saved, plus gas and parking costs, and the more convenient option is actually cheaper, too.
But the state Department of Transportation says Santa Fe misses out on $240 million in direct economic impact generated by people who are coming to Santa Fe, but doing it via Albuquerque's airport. That's almost 1,500 jobs, Humphres says.
Getting even a small piece of that pie would be a big deal.
"To be clear, Santa Fe Municipal Airport is never going to be a Sunport or a Dallas-Ft. Worth or anything like that," Humphres adds. Right now, only 5 percent of the airport's traffic is commercial. Doubling that would be a coup for the airport.
He's not alone in thinking that way.
The Northern New Mexico Air Alliance formed last year, a venture of the city and county, along with Taos Ski Valley and the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce as lead sponsors and administrators. The group won $700,000 in federal and state grants and leveraged the money to negotiate a once-daily flight from Phoenix. The money can be used for advertising and revenue guarantees—essentially paying American Airlines if its passenger loads are too low.
The flight started in December and city tourism director Randy Randall says the alliance expects to come close to breaking even with the flight in just its second quarter. With two years of pledged support to the airline, Randall thinks the flight can become a reliable moneymaker for American.
It's a different strategy than before, when the airport lost a direct flight to Los Angeles on American in 2015. The surprise blow was also the kick in the pants the community needed.
"I think that we realized that by doing nothing except getting excited when a new flight was announced and disappointed when a flight left, we weren't doing anything to get off that rollercoaster," Randall says.
The alliance started with a phone call from Chris Stagg, vice president at Taos Ski Valley. Stagg, who's been at the ski area since the 1970s, says the resort's new owners were eager to get in on expanded air travel.
“In the early ’90s, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, Telluride and Taos all did the same number of skier days, more or less,” he tells SFR. “Taos was actually a little bigger. Now, they are all doing twice as many skier days as we did here last year. One of the reasons is air service.”
Taos has its own airport, of course, which is getting a new runway that should open in the middle of August. But Stagg says the local airport will never serve all the people who want to come to the resort, which is about 20 minutes away. And even if the community does score regional jet service, it will likely be seasonal.
"To me, one of the advantages of Santa Fe is you don't have to do that. … You can have this year-round destination," he says. The trip from Santa Fe to Taos Ski Valley isn't as short as Salt Lake City to Park City, Utah. But it's easily comparable to the trip from Denver to the closest major ski areas in Colorado. Or from Montrose, Colorado to the boutique Western Slope ski town of Telluride.
People in Texas know about Santa Fe and Taos. People in LA do, too. But one of the challenges for the alliance is convincing people in Phoenix that Northern New Mexico isn't just a mildly different version of Sedona or Flagstaff—two Arizona communities that are within a couple hours' drive from Phoenix.
As if to reinforce the point he made to Randy Randall when he pitched the alliance, Stagg says Santa Fe's airport had to do something.
"You could look to airlines and the community of Santa Fe now and say, 'Look, we're making something happen,'" Stagg says. "We weren't just standing around talking about it."
The alliance landed early donations from the city, county and Taos Ski Valley of $50,000 each and went hunting for more business partners to leverage the grants, which require matching funds. The city has since added $100,000 for advertising to the effort, and $15,000 to hire an executive director: former College of Santa Fe president Stuart Kirk.
"It's a focus on the airport, but the real reason for getting the airlines to fly here is to stimulate economic growth in Northern New Mexico," Kirk tells SFR. "It's been proven by lots of research that a good, active airport … has become a foundation for economic growth."
That's the pitch to local businesses, and it's had success. Part of the reason is the city plans to spend a lot of money improving the plucky little airport.
In fact, the city recently dropped $1.1 million making basic accommodations for post-9/11 security measures. As the US improved its pre-flight screening, the demands for safe travel ate into the convenience of it.
The airport's single TSA checkpoint is not usually busy (airport officials say arriving an hour early is plenty of time). But it takes up space. These days, passengers like to clear security so they can relax. Up until last year, that meant getting through a checkpoint into a cramped room that didn't have food or even bathrooms. Not terribly relaxing. The walk onto the tarmac before boarding must have felt like stepping out of prison if the flight and waiting area were full.
Now, there are bathrooms and vending machines. There's a separate arrival area, too. It's unquestionably a better experience for passengers once they're past the TSA checkpoint. But it was all crammed into the existing footprint. And if passengers gained space past security, they lost room before it. The space needed for other airport operations has encroached on the passenger experience, too.
"I don't think Santa Fe Municipal Airport is living up to being a good representative of our community," Humphres, the airport manager, says frankly. "It's a great airport, it has a charming terminal building—but nevertheless, we need to make sure that we have the infrastructure that can support both the flight operations and our passenger operations. The terminal really isn't nearly adequately sized to handle its current operations."
That's diplomatic of him. Perhaps grossly so. The terminal measures 9,700 square feet. To handle the airport's needs now and a couple of decades into the future, the facility should be 30,000 to 40,000 square feet. A memo presented to City Council committees this month suggests spending $35 million over the next five years to design and build a new terminal.
It makes sense, of course, that if taxpayers are going to pay to improve the place, they should make sure it will hold up to more use and not just handle what's there now. But that's a big commitment, especially when the airport is still trying to lock down its current handful of commercial flights
Paying for those improvements can be an arduous process, made more difficult by a puzzling wrinkle in state law: New Mexico is the only state in the country that pulls state funding from airports that charge landing fees for private aircraft. The prohibition is enshrined in state law.
That might seem like an egalitarian consideration, but at airports like Santa Fe, it costs the city $200,000 to $300,000 each year. That's money that has to be made up in other charges. The airport assesses larger ramp fees to planes kept overnight and it gets a few more cents of every gallon of aviation-grade fuel pumped at the airport. Private pilots who have smaller planes may be spared a landing fee, but they're not spared the higher cost of gas or the greater charge to keep their plane on the tarmac.
Bob Hudson, president of the New Mexico Airport Managers' Association and the airport manager for Moriarty, says that many smaller airports wouldn't bother charging landing fees even if they were able to do so. An airport like Moriarty's, for example, doesn't get the kind of heavier jet traffic that causes the wear and tear that necessitates a landing fee.
"When they come here, they stay in our hotels and eat food at our restaurants," he tells SFR of recreational pilots. That's business Moriarty can use.
Heavier jets, though, like the kind that fly into Santa Fe privately but in some cases rival the size of commercial regional jets, do have an impact on the runways, taxiways and parking areas (ramps) that cost money to maintain. If Santa Fe could charge landing fees without risking state funding, it could exempt lighter planes, keeping the city accessible for recreational pilots while finding a more equitable way of paying for the maintenance and facilities necessary to handle heavier private planes.
Airport managers figure out all sorts of ways to keep the runways and doors open at their facilities, but Hudson says New Mexico's system takes one useful option off the table.
"We are the only state around that does this," he says. "I don't know what the arguments were [when the law was passed] or why it was set up that way."
New Mexico Department of Transportation spokeswoman Emilee Cantrell would not respond to SFR's request to interview someone about the history of the law, its impact or efforts to change it. It's not something that could be done administratively; the Legislature would have to change the law to return the option to charge landing fees.
As much as Santa Fe might like to have a bigger terminal, it needs a better runway first. The city is in the midst of a $4.7 million project to improve runway 2-20. The vast majority of the money comes from the Federal Aviation Administration; the city and state split the roughly 6 percent that's not paid for by the FAA. The city hopes to go to bid on the project as soon as the FAA gets a budget from Congress.
That's just part of what needs to be done. The city has closed a crosswind runway because it's in such disrepair. It only handled 1 percent of the airport's traffic and was technically a third runway option, so the FAA won't pay for its repair.
Of greater concern is the taxiway that planes use to get from the southwest end of the main runway to the terminal. Called Taxiway Delta, it's underdesigned for the heavy planes now using it. It's dipped, unstable and will cost another $6.6 million to repair. Again, most of that comes from the FAA, but it also takes time and effort for Humphres and other city staffers.
The city has drafted an amendment to the master plan that anticipates a new terminal, but the reality of running an airport that first handled traffic in the early 1940s is safety first, comfort later.
A Grand(ish) Entry
If all of this is going to come together for Santa Fe—more flights, better runways, a more functional terminal—a new way to actually get to the airport is critical.
At a recent city committee meeting, Reed Liming, a division director in charge of long-range planning, euphemistically described the approach to the airport on Aviation Drive this way: "Passengers get to, um, experience our wastewater treatment plant as they drive to the terminal."
They also get to pass a junkyard full of old cars.
It doesn't look good and, when the wind is wrong, it doesn't smell good either. But Humphres isn't turning up his nose at what's there. "Those are important aspects of any city, you know? You're going to have light industrial and that type of use. But nevertheless, it doesn't really provide a very good visual entrance or exit," he says.
There are plans for that, too.
In May, the City Council approved a resolution that adds to the Impact Fee Capital Improvements Plan a $1.7 million extension of Jaguar Drive from the as-yet-unopened interchange with Highway 599 to the airport's front door.
"It's a grand entrance. And I don't think that we have to spend a lot of money on a grand entrance, but I think it's appropriate to have an entrance to the gateway to the community that well represents the community," says Humphres.
The road would be just across the highway from the Village Plaza at Tierra Contenta development. Theoretically, the entire area could see a development boom, though it's a ways off.
The developer, Katharine Cook Fishman, and her late father Richard Cook, actually agreed to pay for the road in an annexation agreement signed eight years ago. As is common with such contracts, though, there's no timeline for constructing the extension to the airport.
"There's a reason for that. The councilors who are sponsoring this, and the mayor as well, would like to see that road built sooner rather than later," Santa Fe Asset Development Director Matt O'Reilly explains.
By adding the project to the capital improvements list, it qualifies for an impact fee offset credit. It's a little complicated, but it's basically an incentive. If the developer builds the road now, at current costs, the price of the project can be used to offset future impact fees.
Scott Hoeft of the Santa Fe Planning Group says the road extension isn't a short-term priority for the developer, who has sunk millions into the project already, but it has the potential to make a difference.
The extension would open up 300 acres of land that belongs to the developer on the south side of it, a project tentatively called The Pavilions. It would also create access to 85 acres of city-owned land that O'Reilly says people have long assumed would be a city-owned business park. Revenue from that kind of development, both leases and taxes, would go a long way toward helping the airport pay its bills.
O'Reilly likes the look of the plan—even without much in the way of detail. "Air travel is a big part of economic development," he tells SFR. "And by the way, if that road isn't built, the city land is not able to be developed."
Getting everything to work in concert at the airport isn't easy. It looks simple from the outset; as simple as sprucing up a classic terminal, pouring some new concrete on the runway and building a short road.
Like flying itself, though, what looks simple often is not. There are seemingly endless variables and the commercial aviation industry offers no guarantees. If Santa Fe—and Northern New Mexico—can expand the city's airport sensibly, creating convenience without losing character, the airport could be piloting an economic renaissance into the coming decades.