Deadline nears for airlines to bid on EAS contract
by Molly Marcello
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The Moab community will soon have the opportunity to weigh in on potential airline carriers for Canyonlands Field airport. The deadline for airlines to submit bids to provide Essential Air Service (EAS) to Moab closes Monday, Dec. 22, and a public comment period will follow, said Canyonlands Field Airport Manager Judd Hill.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) put the Canyonlands Field EAS contract out for bid after the SkyWest, which currently holds the contract, announced plans to end service on April 30 due to upcoming changes in its fleet of aircraft.
Although the DOT — which oversees the EAS program — has the final say in which airline carrier receives the Moab contract, Hill noted that public comments do have influence.
Hill said that because of community support, the DOT awarded the contract to SkyWest in 2013, even though the Cedar City-based airline’s bid was higher than the other airlines that submitted proposals.
“It was the public input that got us SkyWest. The county council, the beauty salons — everybody wrote letters,” Hill said. “And the federal government agreed. The community has the opportunity to have a large say in this.”
But SkyWest is now ending its EAS contract almost one year early, due to a corporate decision to phase out its smaller turbo-prop planes in favor of larger regional jets. The runways at Canyonlands Field are currently too narrow to accommodate the larger planes.
Marissa Snow, director of corporate communications for SkyWest, attributed the phase-out to new challenges in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.
“The fleet removal comes, in part, as a result of increased cost and associated challenges under the new [Federal Aviation Regulation] flight and duty rules implemented in January 2014,” Snow said.
Hill said new FAA requirements, including an increase in the number flight hours required for new pilots to serve as captains or co-pilots on passenger flights, and a mandatory retirement age for experienced pilots, are putting pressure on airlines across the county. Because of the FAA changes, many airlines, especially smaller regional airline companies, are now struggling to find enough qualified pilots to fly scheduled routes.
Hill said he anticipates more regional airlines will be transitioning to larger jets because they can accommodate more passengers while requiring fewer pilots for the routes.
“We are going to see a continual shift in the airline industry going towards larger regional jets,” he said.
With that in mind, the Grand County Council recently gave Canyonlands Field $270,000 to develop an Airport Master Plan and Airport Layout Plan. Once those plans are completed, airport officials expect the widening of the runway, and other improvements needed to accommodate the larger jets, could be done by the end of 2016.
Hill said this week that the first step in the runway widening process — updating the Airport Master Plan — is on schedule.
“I’ve got the first part of the draft in front of me,” Hill said Dec. 17. “We’re right on schedule, right on track.”
Snow, of SkyWest, assured The Times-Independent this week that the airline would like to return to Canyonlands Field once the runway expansion is completed.
“We would welcome the opportunity to work with city and airport officials to ensure Moab travelers are able to access SkyWest’s reliable air service in the future,” Snow said.
But Hill told the Moab Area Travel Council last week that once the runway project is completed, Canyonlands Field could be more attractive to several different air carriers in addition to SkyWest.
“We might be looking at good competition between SkyWest and Allegiant once we get a bigger runway,” Hill said. “There may even be a market for a second airline to service Moab.”
However, for now, Hill said the airport’s top priority is soliciting new air carriers like Great Lakes, Boutique Air, and Redtail Aviation to submit bids to provide Essential Air Service to Moab.
Airport board member Bob Greenberg said that of the regional carriers that might place bids, Great Lakes is the only carrier with 30-passenger turbo-prop planes. The others fly much smaller aircraft.
“Unfortunately, there really is only one game in town for these twin-engine turbo-props with 30 seats,” Greenberg said. “There’s nobody else flying them [except Great Lakes].”
Great Lakes also must use Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screening for its flights, which smaller air carriers like Boutique Air and Redtail Aviation are not required to do.
That means with the smaller carriers, planes flying out of Moab would land at a hub airport’s general aviation site then shuttle passengers to their connections at various terminals.
Greenberg said he thinks Great Lakes might ultimately bid for the EAS contract with a proposal to provide two flights per day to Denver using 30-passenger aircraft.
Greenberg hypothesized that because they can carry fewer passengers, the smaller air carriers might submit EAS bids that include more flights per day to other regional hubs in the area.
However the bidding process pans out, Hill said he is looking towards long-term growth at Canyonlands Field.
He compared Moab’s future airport potential to that of Durango’s current airport. Although Durango, Colorado, receives half as many tourists as Moab, the Durango-La Plata County Airport has approximately 170,000 more annual enplanements, which funnels an estimated $2 million into the city’s local economy, Hill told the travel council.
“There are great possibilities for the airport,” Hill said. “Durango’s airport puts out $2 million into the regional economy. It’s where we can be in 20-plus years by putting work into the airport.”
Read more: Moab Times-Independent - Deadline nears for airlines to bid on EAS contract