Great Lakes Aviation is back.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced March 26 that it awarded a two-year contract to the passenger airline carrier for 12 nonstop flights per week between Canyonlands Field Airport and Denver.
Current Essential Air Service carrier SkyWest Airlines is scheduled to fly its last plane out of Canyonlands Field on April 30, and airport officials are hoping for a smooth and quick transition from one airline to the other.
“We are working on trying to get them in here on May 1,” Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill said March 31.
However, that date is not necessarily set in stone, since both airline carriers — and both airports — still need to work out logistical issues.
In Canyonlands Field’s case, the airport is dealing with space-related constraints. It was not set up to handle more than one airline carrier at a time, and “the old guys need to get out” before Great Lakes can fully settle in to the space, Hill said.
While some local officials took it as a foregone conclusion that the new contract would go to Great Lakes, Hill suggested that company officials couldn’t make that assumption, so they couldn’t move forward with the process to hire part-time and full-time employees until they knew for sure.
“Obviously, they couldn’t start advertising for positions before they had a contract,” he said.
Even after the Cheyenne, Wyoming-based company hires its local employees, it still has to train them.
“You don’t hire an entire new office in two days,” Hill said.
The Cheyenne, Wyoming-based company must also coordinate with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, and finally, it will have to go through some of the same logistical work at the other end.
“It takes a while to set up a contract with Denver International Airport,” Hill said. “They need to be able to work those logistics not only into the departures … but also on the arrival side.”
Luckily, he said, everyone who is involved in the transition is in sync with each other.
“It’s been a great situation of everyone working together,” he said. “We just don’t have anything finalized yet … other than the contract.”
Great Lakes most recently served Moab’s airport up until early 2014. But the company canceled all of its flights before its previous Essential Air Service contract expired.
At the time, Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell informed local airport officials that his airline did not have enough pilots or crew members to serve Canyonlands Field – a shortage that he linked to new federal regulations governing pilots.
SkyWest took over Essential Air Service (EAS) under a new contract, only to pull out of the federally subsidized agreement before its time was up. The St. George company announced that it is switching its entire fleet over to larger aircraft that are too big to serve Canyonlands Field’s main runway, which is scheduled to be upgraded in late 2016 and early 2017.
Although SkyWest’s move caught some local officials off guard, the company nonetheless earned rave reviews from travelers and others who praised its reliable track record at Canyonlands Field.
Great Lakes’ service, in contrast, came under past criticism from residents in Moab and Vernal, who noted that many of its flights were delayed or canceled altogether.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s order that awards the company more than $2.24 million per year acknowledges that the carrier’s past record of service was “unsatisfactory.” In the future, it says it expects Great Lakes to show that it is committed to providing “consistent, reliable service” to the communities it serves.
“… One (of) the EAS program’s responsibilities is to ensure reliable air service to all EAS communities,” the order says. “In that regard, the Department is reminding Great Lakes that poor service could cause a drop in passenger usage at the airports the carrier serves, which could potentially jeopardize a community’s future eligibility in the EAS program.”
Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff, who supported Great Lakes’ bid to serve Canyonlands Field once again, said he believes the company is committed to improving its service.
“I think that Great Lakes will step up to the plate,” he said.
Airline companies everywhere are experiencing problems with pilot shortages, he said, but he thinks Great Lakes is in a much better position than it was two years ago.
“My understanding is that they’ve gained a lot of people,” Groff said.
Hill agreed that other airlines — including SkyWest — are also struggling in the wake of a 2013 congressional law that requires co-pilots to log at least 1,500 hours of flight experience before a commercial airline can hire them. The mandated increase went up from 250 hours of flight experience in response to a 2009 plane crash in New York that killed 50 people.
“The pilot issues will be affecting the entire airline industry for the next 10 to 15 years,” Hill said. “Every airline is looking for pilots all the time … Due to the regulations, it’s going to be an ongoing problem for decades.”
Great Lakes previously served Moab with 19-seat planes. But when it returns to the airport, it will be upgrading its local fleet to 30-seat Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia aircraft — perhaps a sign that the company learned from SkyWest’s success with the larger planes.
“We definitely are excited to have the opportunity to keep the Brasilia aircraft flying in here,” Hill said.
Reactions to the company’s flight itinerary are more mixed. Some residents, including Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, would have preferred to see a continuation of flights to Salt Lake City International Airport.
Both Groff and Hill said they understand how those people might feel about the loss of that service. However, they also see the advantages that come with connections to the larger Denver International Airport.
“Denver can also be beneficial for every aspect of our community, except for those who want to fly specifically to Salt Lake City,” Hill said.
In the past, Groff has noted that the company has a code-sharing partnership with United Airlines at the Denver International Airport, as well as interline e-ticketing and baggage agreements with United, Delta and American Airlines. He sees that as a good thing.
“I’m happy that it’s a major hub,” he said.
Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay can understand why the company chose Denver.
“I am not surprised as they already have a gate preference in Denver and would have to develop that in (Salt Lake City),” she said.
Anecdotally speaking, she said she’s heard from local regulars who say they will miss the flights to Utah’s state capital.
“But I really haven’t heard anything more about preferences,” she said.
Canyonlands Field hopes to see a smooth transition between carriers
I think that Great Lakes will step up to the plate.