It’s been nearly three months since the last scheduled commuter flight departed from Canyonlands Field on April 30, and the lapse in service is putting the airport at risk for keeping its federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) status.
TSA status provides on-site security screening and allows passengers to check baggage through to connecting flights. It also allows flights from Moab to land at secure terminals in major airports as opposed to landing in general aviation areas.
“It gives us the potential opportunity to provide true commercial service out of Moab,” airport manager Judd Hill told the Moab Sun News.
TSA sets a 90-day deadline for disruption of service before it “de-federalizes” the station by pulling its employees. TSA staff is currently on unpaid furlough, although full-time employees were offered positions at other stations.
Hill said that he has been in contact with the TSA director for the area and that the deadline isn’t “hard fast.”
“They can’t sit around forever, though,” Hill said.
Great Lakes Aviation, which was awarded a U.S. Department of Transportation contract in March to provide Essential Air Service twice daily between Moab and Denver, was scheduled to begin flights as early as May. It has not yet set up a date for service to and from Canyonlands Field.
The airline, which previously served as Moab’s Essential Air Service carrier between 2008 and 2014, earned a reputation for unreliability and canceled flights. It replaced SkyWest Airlines, which terminated its service to Moab this spring, just over one year into its two-year contract.
SkyWest earned largely positive reviews from passengers and local officials, but moved to transition its fleet away from 30-seat turboprop planes in favor of 50-seat regional jets, which Canyonlands Field’s current runway cannot accommodate.
The Grand County Council last fall approved funds for a new runway, and Hill said that construction is planned for the winter of 2016-2017.
On July 15, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued another order requiring SkyWest to resume EAS in four communities, including Moab and Vernal, through Aug. 15, “or until an air carrier capable of providing reliable EAS actually begins service.”
The agency is ultimately the one with which airlines have a contractual obligation.
Hill said that the order hasn’t been enforced, and that he has been working with the Vernal Regional Airport manager to come up with a temporary solution that will allow them both to keep TSA status.
“Vernal is in the same boat as we are,” he said.
Hill said they are proposing that Great Lakes restore service between Denver, Vernal and Moab, which it did under its previous contract, as opposed to providing twice-daily flights from Denver to and from each town individually.
Though the service isn’t ideal, Hill said, it would at least keep the airport from becoming “de-federalized.”
“Great Lakes responded two weeks ago saying they liked the idea,” Hill said. “But we’re still waiting for a follow up.”
Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell did not respond to request for comment. But Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff told the Moab Sun News that the airline is having a hard time finding pilots to fulfill its contract due to a change in federal regulations which require pilots to have more hours of fly time before they can become passenger pilots.
Groff said that Great Lakes is also one of the lowest-paying airlines in an industry already notorious for low pay. Starting commercial pilots with 1,500 hours of flight time make around $20,000 a year.
“But if we can just get them to fly one 12-seat plane a day in here, that would only require one pilot,” Groff said. “That way we could keep TSA in our hip pocket.”
Groff said it was important to keep TSA so that Grand County could continue to plan for commercial service in the future.
“This tourist season is shot, and probably next year too until we get that runway built,” Groff said. “But SkyWest has written us a letter saying they want to come back when it’s finished.”
Groff said that if they can get SkyWest back, they would ultimately like to see daily flights to both Denver and Salt Lake City.
“That’s one of our goals,” he said.
Hill said that in spite of the lack of commuter service, there is still a lot going on at the airport, and that other associated uses employ more than 40 people.
“The airport is incredibly busy, and certain aspects like skydiving are record setting,” he said. “Helicopter tours and airplane tours are right up there as well.”
Hill said that the airport has also seen an increase in private jets using the facility.
Matt Moore, a pilot for Red Tail Aviation, said that his company is having a great year flying scenic tours, as well as transporting river runners. He said it has also picked up several charter flights due to the lack of commuter service.
“A guy called us from San Francisco and wanted us to meet him in Salt Lake,” Moore said. “We’ll pick people up from anywhere.”
But for business owners like Jason Taylor, the lapse in service has been a definite setback. Taylor owns a car rental business at the airport and a jeep rental business in town.
Taylor said that he was approached by the county to provide additional service beyond what was provided by Enterprise, due to the amount of enplanements incurred by SkyWest.
Taylor said he was told there wouldn’t be much of a lapse in service, “but now we’re in limbo.”
“We made a pretty significant investment to make this business work,” Taylor said. “We bought cars, and promised people jobs. And we’re still paying rent to the county for space at the airport.”
Taylor said that nevertheless, he is committed and that he wants to see the airport succeed.
“We see that there is a future in there,” he said. “What’s frustrating is that SkyWest knew they were going to quit all along.”
Hill said it’s important to keep the focus on big-picture improvements to the airport that will ultimately increase enplanements and provide better service for Moab. He said that the runway improvements were on schedule and that officials are currently taking bids for environmental assessment work.
He said the draft master plan was completed and that they are looking toward potential Utah Permanent Community Impact Board (CIB) funding to expand the terminal.
“It’s easy to get lost in not having service during the short term, it does have an impact,” Hill said. “But we need to think for the long term, we want to have the infrastructure available to support our community’s needs.”
No start date in sight, but officials say focus is on a long-term plan
It’s easy to get lost in not having service during the short term…but we need to think for the long term, we want to have the infrastructure available to support our community’s needs.