Grand County officials are asking for a switch in essential air service (EAS) providers when the Great Lakes Aviation’s two-year contract at Canyonlands Field Airport expires at the end of this year.
Great Lakes, which has operated daily flights between Moab and Denver since 2008, has formally submitted a $1.8 million bid to continue that service under the federally subsidized EAS program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Instead of recommending Great Lakes, however, county officials this week said they would rather see SkyWest Airlines take over as Moab’s commercial air service provider starting in January 2014, when a new two-year EAS contract is scheduled to take effect.
SkyWest, based in St. George, would offer daily flights to Salt Lake City and utilize a larger airplane capable of seating 30 passengers, said Michael Thompson, SkyWest’s vice president of market development. SkyWest’s bid requests a $2.3 million annual federal subsidy.
Thompson said he sees Moab as a prime destination for tourists and vacationers, and that having a Salt Lake City air travel connection will help enhance that status.
Thompson was on hand to present and explain SkyWest’s bid at Monday’s meeting of the Grand County Airport Board. Representatives from Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Aviation, including CEO Chuck Howell and public relations director Monica Taylor-Lee, also were in attendance to make a presentation and answer questions about their company’s bid.
A third bidder, a smaller and relatively new company based in San Francisco called Boutique Airlines, also submitted a proposal with several options, all utilizing the smaller Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, which seats nine passengers. All but one of Boutique’s listed options were in the $3 to $5 million range. Boutique did not send a representative to this week’s airport board meeting, and the company’s bid was only briefly mentioned.
At Monday’s airport board meeting, board members unanimously voted to recommend SkyWest to the Grand County Council, which met the following afternoon, on Aug. 6. County council members followed the airport board’s recommendation and unanimously voted to send a letter to the DOT in support of SkyWest’s bid.
Great Lakes currently uses the 19-seat Beechcraft 1900 aircraft for its Moab service, which includes two scheduled round trips between Moab and Denver each day, with some exceptions due to weather and availability.
In contrast, SkyWest’s bid calls for the use of the 30-seat Embraer Brasilia turboprop to make 12 weekly round-trip flights between Moab and Salt Lake City, including two flights on most days.
The combination of the larger plane and the change of destination to Salt Lake City instead of Denver were the main reasons for recommending SkyWest over Great Lakes, said officials and members of the public who attended Monday’s airport board meeting.
“If we had a bigger plane and it operated out of Salt Lake, it would open up a whole new world,” said Colin Fryer, owner of Red Cliffs Lodge.
Moab business owner and real estate agent Joe Kingsley agreed.
“We’ve reached that pivotal point where we have to plan for our future,” Kingsley said.
Roy Barraclough, administrator of the Canyonlands Care Center, said that, strictly from a health care perspective, flights to and from Salt Lake City would be highly preferred over flights to Denver.
Salt Lake City’s state government and tourism connections were also mentioned, as was the idea that many Moab residents have family and business connections to Utah’s state capital.
Regular service with a larger-capacity aircraft could help Moab reach the 10,000 emplanement threshold for the first time ever. That would potentially qualifying Canyonlands Field Airport for $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding for airport infrastructure and improvements. Canyonlands Field currently receives $150,000 in FAA funding each year, according to airport manager Kelly Braun.
Braun said on Tuesday that the airport has had more than 9,000 emplanements in each of the past two years, and is on track to reach a similar number in 2013.
Braun said the term emplanements refers to paying passengers who board an airplane at a designated airport. The number may include both scheduled and charter airline service, he said. However, general aviation emplanements, including those involving activities such as sky diving and helicopter tours, are not included, Braun said.
“Ten thousand emplanements could soon be a reality, allowing us to grow and develop our infrastructure,” Braun told the county council during his annual report presentation Tuesday. “This is the main reason for promoting and developing our EAS to operate at a maximum capacity which will springboard us into a new era of unsubsidized air service.”
Braun said members of the public are also welcome to send their own suggestions or recommendations regarding the EAS bid to federal transportation officials prior to the Aug. 23 deadline for public comment. Braun said he will collect and forward via email any correspondence he receives to Dennis DeVany, the DOT official in charge of the EAS program. Letters submitted electronically should be written on letterhead stationery and signed, then electronically scanned as a PDF document, Braun said. Comments should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the dollar amount of each bid is a factor in the DOT’s final decision regarding the awarding of EAS contracts, the contracts do not always go to the lowest bidder, Grand County Airport Board chairman Bill Groff noted during Monday’s meeting.
Several different airline companies have provided essential air service to Canyonlands Field since the facility first became an EAS airport in 1978.
Great Lakes Aviation spokeswoman Taylor-Lee said Wednesday that while the company had hoped the council would recommend staying with Great Lakes, the airline understands the county’s reasoning behind wanting to switch.
“Of course, we would have liked to have the board recommend Great Lakes, but also understand their desire to feed into Salt Lake as opposed to Denver. Great Lakes will remain committed to the community regardless,” Taylor-Lee said.
Great Lakes serves 45 airports in 13 states and is the largest EAS provider in the nation, serving some 32 EAS communities, she said.