Passenger airline traffic between Moab’s airport and Salt Lake City is in limbo, after SkyWest Airlines pulled out before a new Essential Air Service carrier is in place.
SkyWest informed Canyonlands Field Airport last week that it will not follow a federal order requiring the St. George company to extend its passenger service to Moab until Great Lakes Aviation is ready to take over.
Great Lakes is in the process of hiring and training staff members at Canyonlands Field and Denver International Airport. Company CEO Chuck Howell could not be reached for comment by press time, but Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill said it’s unlikely that the new carrier will be in a position to begin flights this month.
“We do not have a start date,” Hill told the Moab Sun News. “It most likely will not be in May now.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an “order extending service obligation” on Thursday, April 30 – the last day that the St. George-based airline was scheduled to operate at Moab’s airport. The order says that SkyWest must continue service at Canyonlands Field through June 16, or until Great Lakes is ready to begin flights to and from Denver. (The order also mandates continued SkyWest service to airports in Vernal; Pueblo, Colorado; and Crescent City, California, during the same timeframe.)
But Hill said that SkyWest informed federal officials that all of its Brasilia EMB-120 aircraft have been mothballed, following the last April 30 flight from Canyonlands Field. According to Hill, the company claims that it no longer has the capability to serve the airport.
Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff said he’s also heard that SkyWest has taken all of its Brasilia EMB-120 planes out of service.
“So that’s where we sit now: brokenhearted,” Groff said.
Although it might be disappointing to Groff and others, the airline’s departure from Canyonlands Field was not unexpected.
SkyWest Corporate Communications Director Marissa Snow announced last year that the company would be transitioning to an all-jet fleet by May 2015. At the time, Snow said the airline could no longer serve Canyonlands Field because its existing runway is too small to accommodate the bigger planes.
Airport and county officials are moving forward with plans to upgrade the runway. But that work will not be done until 2017 at the earliest, which was not soon enough from SkyWest’s perspective.
SkyWest earned rave reviews for its reliable service to Moab, although its decision to leave Canyonlands Field before its two-year Essential Air Service contract expired came as a shock to Grand County Airport Board member Bob Greenberg and others.
However, its departure did create an opening for Great Lakes, which previously served Canyonlands Field during the last Essential Air Service contract period that ended in early 2014. During the final months of that era, Great Lakes flights were often canceled or delayed.
The company attributed the delays to congressionally mandated flight and duty rules that took effect in January 2014. Under those rules, co-pilots must 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.
Groff has said that Great Lakes is in a better position than it was two years ago, noting that the company has boosted its staff.
He also believes the Cheyenne, Wyoming-based company is committed to improving its service. For one thing, it’s upgrading its local fleet from 19-seat planes to the same 30-seat aircraft that SkyWest was using, and it will be making nonstop flights between Moab and Denver.
As for the transition between carriers, Hill had been expecting to see a smooth handover. As recently as late March, he noted that the two companies and everyone else who was involved in the transition were working closely together.
While SkyWest ultimately held firmly to its April 30 departure date, the U.S. Department of Transportation has the regulatory authority to extend the service period for its federally subsidized airline carriers.
As a rule, Essential Air Service carriers are subject to enforcement action if they fail to comply with federal aviation statutes, regulations or department orders. But a U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman declined to say whether the agency would pursue action against SkyWest.
Hill doubts that it will come to that. Legal action could run on for one to two years, he said, without any tangible benefit to Canyonlands Field or its passengers.
“It wouldn’t help the community at all,” Hill said.
The good news is that other operations at the airport are still going strong. Even after SkyWest’s last plane took off from Canyonlands Field, the airport’s parking lot was still at near-capacity.
“Most of those people were not on that airplane,” Hill said.
The number of occupied parking spaces was just one sign that the airport is still “very much” open for other business, with charter operations, scenic flights, helicopter tours and skydiving activities as busy as ever, he said.
“There are a lot of hardworking people here representing a lot of good businesses at the airport,” he said. “We just don’t have commercial airline service.”
Like Hill, Groff welcomes that activity.
“Everybody’s happy as far as that goes,” he said.
SkyWest pulls out before new commercial airline carrier in place; charter operations remain busy
We do not have a new start date … It most likely will not be in May now.