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Flying Start

Santa Fe Airport officials look forward—and back

Airport Manager James Harris says he hopes the airport’s development will help bring additional flights to Santa Fe and enhance travelers’ experiences. (Evan Chandler)

On a Wednesday afternoon at the Santa Fe Regional Airport, construction workers and machines fill the area near the front entrance. Cars drive through an excavated path within the ongoing development to pick up and drop off travelers. Standing outside and sporting sunglasses on a sunny day, Airport Manager James Harris looks on.

“It’s been pretty hectic around here just because of the construction,” Harris says. “Trying to run an airport with 11 daily departures under construction is a big headache, and the biggest hurdle is trying to manage traffic, schedules and airline passengers with as little interruption as possible.”

The ongoing work—which began roughly 2 1/2 years ago and has faced several delays—symbolizes the end of the first phase of updates for the city’s airport, Harris tells SFR. The changes include: a terminal remodel; a relocation of airline offices; new rotating public art exhibits; added concessions and more. The airport manager says while the terminal portion of the project is complete, the roadway to its front will remain unfinished until July, while an additional parking lot added to the construction plan is slated for completion in September.

While city leaders herald the renovation as a major step forward for the airport, Harris notes the facility has undergone changes since it opened as a military airfield in 1941. Even SFR’s first edition in 1974 notes renovations, with officials resurfacing the runway following safety concerns. That project, as reported, cost approximately $1.6 million. The first phase of the latest airport redevelopment cost roughly $21.5 million.

Construction at the airport constitutes a necessary burden, Harris says.

“Airports that don’t have construction aren’t growing,” he says. “It’s also a huge part of maintaining our facility.”

Deputy City of Santa Fe Manager Layla Archuletta-Maestas tells SFR that while the Albuquerque International Sunport is only an hour away, “that hour makes such a big difference.” City officials want to make the airport “available,” she says—particularly to tourists.

“Santa Fe is such a big tourist hub. We continue to make national lists for being one of the best places to visit,” Archuletta-Maestas says. “We want them to just fly directly to Santa Fe and have that experience we want to make as we improve the airport’s look and feel…so I think it’s not only that we want to bring people here, but I think people are coming here anyways, and so we just want to encourage that even more.”

Harris says residents also are part of the equation.

“A lot of people don’t realize you can fly anywhere in the world from Santa Fe,” Harris says. “I think it’s a benefit for people who want to visit family or go on vacation.”

The nonprofit Northern New Mexico Air Alliance Executive Director Stuart Kirk tells SFR the city’s efforts are well placed, describing the airport as “a stimulus for our economy” in more ways than one.

“When people who visit Santa Fe come in through Santa Fe rather than through Albuquerque, the information we have is that they stay longer. By staying longer, they’ll spend more money, maybe another night in a hotel, maybe a few more meals, maybe find something else to buy or participate in certain activities,” Kirk says. “So there are lots of economic reasons that we want to encourage people to use our airport and to even make it so that we can get more activity, which encourages the airlines to have more flights to more places.”

The Alliance formed in 2016 to help promote the airport, and has since worked with and received financial contracts from both Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties, as well as the City of Santa Fe, including a current $200,000 one through 2025 promoting the airport and tracking its use.

The Alliance’s efforts have certainly led to growth, Kirk adds, noting that when the group first launched, approximately 200 people used the airport daily. Today, that number sits at 800 to 1,000 people, “so the work being done right now is catching up with the requirements to make it a smooth and pleasant visit for people who are flying in and out,” he says. Both Harris and City of Santa Fe Director of Tourism Randy Randall confirm the increased daily figures.

Kirk attributes the previous lower level of usage to concerns about canceled or delayed flights.

“At that time, since we only had sometimes one or two flights a day, it was better for them or more certain for them if they went down to Albuquerque,” he says. “Now, with 11 flights a day, if a flight gets delayed or canceled, there’s another flight following it, and our delay rate and our cancellation rate is now almost exactly the same as Albuquerque’s, but it’s taken quite a while for people to realize that.”

Next on the Kirk’s airport wishlist are a few nonstop flights to California, adding the organization does “a lot of advertising” in the southern part of the state right now.

“We cover the east pretty well, but the west—especially to support the movie business—we’re trying to encourage airlines to look at that possibility,” he says.

Kirk notes the organization conducted a study last year evaluating how many people traveled from Southern California to Albuquerque to Santa Fe in one day by creating a virtual boundary that enabled software to trigger a response when a mobile device entered or exited an area—commonly referred to as “geofencing.”

“Our belief is that around 40,000 people didn’t want to go to Albuquerque—they actually wanted to go to Santa Fe,” Kirk explains. “But right now, for those on the west coast, people pretty much have to go to Albuquerque and then get up to Santa Fe by car.”

In March, the Santa Fe Regional Airport introduced a Saturday flight to Houston, which Harris says is doing well. Most recently, this month the airport tested a second flight to Houston.

Next on the list is designing phase two of the project, which will expand the terminal and connect the airport to Highway 599. The city received $2 million in capital outlay for the design of the second phase and $4.5 million from the New Mexico Legislature for the road.

Harris says he sees the airport “continuing to move forward” in coming years and is in talks with airlines to bring on additional flights as development continues.

“I just want to enhance the passenger experience at the airport, and doing that efficiently and safely is the best way forward,” he says. “The city deserves a great airport, and that’s what I’m here to do.”

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