January of next year could see a change in the number of flights leaving from Canyonlands Field (CNY) as well as the cities those flights go to and come from.
The two-year contract for service out of Moab’s airport is up for review this year. Three proposals from different carriers, including one from the incumbent, Great Lakes Airlines, are under consideration.
Many stakeholders in Grand County, including the Grand County Council, Moab City Mayor Dave Sakrison, the Moab Area Travel Council, and a number of businesses hope to see Great Lakes replaced by SkyWest Airlines.
“I’ve sat on the airport board and we have definitely had some issues (with Great Lakes),” Sakrison said. “There have been some delays and some flight cancellations.”
“The feedback that I have received from the public is that the community has lost its confidence in Great Lakes,” said Kelly Braun, the airport manager at Canyonlands Field.
The local government, however, does not have the final say in what carrier will provide service to Grand County’s airport. This is because Canyonlands Field has been an Essential Air Service (EAS) airport since the federal government began the program in 1978.
EAS was started by the federal government as a stop-gap to ensure that small communities did not lose air service after the deregulation of airlines. Though the program has changed over the years it still provides funding of approximately $210 million a year in subsidies to about 200 communities, including Moab, said Braun.
Those subsidies go to the airlines that provide service and cannot exceed over $500 per seat. EAS airports must have an average of 10 enplanements per day, not including private flights.
Canyonlands Field has had a number of airlines provide service since 1978, Braun said in a presentation to the county council, “but most have left much to be desired.”
With the arrival of Great Lakes Airlines in 2008, service improved somewhat and more passengers began using Canyonlands Field.
In 2008 there were approximately 4,000 enplanements at Canyonlands Field. By last year that number had risen to 9,034. Braun estimated that half of the enplanements are for scheduled flights, the other half for tours and charters.
Great Lakes Airlines now has two scheduled flights to Denver per day, with a ticket price of around $117. But though the number of people taking flights through Canyonlands Field has increased in recent years, many in Moab do not have much faith in the service.
“Air service right now isn’t that great,” said Sarah Sidwell, the marketing director at Tag-A-Long Expeditions.
Sidwell recently had one of her major annual clients ask about whether it would be more desirable to fly directly to Moab this year, rather than fly to Salt Lake City then bus to Moab for their corporate retreat.
“They are bringing in close to 30 people. There’s no way that Great Lakes can accommodate that as far as passenger capacity,” Sidwell said. “I would hate to have them waste their retreat days waiting for a delayed flight.”
The limited capacity of the planes used by Great Lakes Airlines can be an issue particularly in the summer, when weight restrictions due to warm temperatures, as well as the high altitude planes must fly over the Rocky Mountains, can bring the maximum passenger load of the 19 seat-planes down to 12 to 14 passengers.
“It doesn’t happen with regularity but it does happen,” Braun said.
Boutique Air is one of the companies that sent in a proposal for providing service to Canyonlands Field. Though they offered several options, including flights to Las Vegas, Denver, and Salt Lake City, Boutique Air’s planes are even smaller than Great Lake Airlines’ and they do not fly into major airports.
“There is no connectivity on Boutique to get to another airline to continue on,” said Braun. “Their bid wasn’t really relevant for the community.”
SkyWest Airlines, on the other hand, would use aircraft that hold 30 people. They are also connected with a number of large carriers, including Delta Airlines. The SkyWest Airlines proposal has a minimum of 12 flights per week to Salt Lake City.
“SkyWest has a very good reputation. They say ‘when you book with us, we fly,’” said Marian DeLay, the executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council.
DeLay said that, though Denver is a bigger hub than Salt Lake City, the increasing number of direct flights from Salt Lake City to international cities makes it an attractive choice. Salt Lake City is also the maintenance facility for SkyWest Airlines, so repairs and extra planes would be readily available.
Mayor Sakrison also feels that the SkyWest route would be the most advantageous for locals.
“A lot of people have to go out of town for treatment for medical reasons. A lot of them are going to Salt Lake,” he said. “And we are part of Utah. The connections between Delta and SkyWest it would be really beneficial.”
Even with a great deal of local support it is by no means certain that SkyWest will get the contract. Though local support does help, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration make the decision, Braun said.
“The bids went out, the proposals were returned and right now we are in the process of community recommendation. The USDOT will take all that into account and make a final recommendation,” he said.
Community input was due Friday, Aug. 23.
And though the official date for public input may be past, Braun would still like to hear from anyone that has feedback on the proposal, or on the airport in general.
“I welcome any input on the SkyWest proposal, and commercial service in general at the airport. And what people would like to see at the airport,” he said.
If SkyWest Airlines is awarded the Canyonlands Field contract, Braun expects that the airport will reach the 10,000-enplanement threshold in the next two years. That would mean that Moab’s airport would be eligible for a $1 million subsidy.
“If we reach that point we can make a lot of improvements out there,” Sakrison said. “One of the big improvement is to widen the runway. Currently we can’t get regional jet service because our runway is not big enough.”
If Canyonlands Field were able to get regional jet service, Sidwell believes that it could have a substantial impact on Moab’s economy.
“That would increase not only my business, but hoteliers’ business, restaurants’ business, because we could make Moab more of a hub-spoke location where guests could stay here for multiple nights and then travel elsewhere during the day,” she said.