Salt Lake City or Denver?

Airline passengers could have the option of flying between Moab and one of the two cities – or both – under the latest Essential Air Service proposals to serve Canyonlands Field Airport.

Boutique Air is proposing 20 weekly nonstop, round-trip flights on eight- or nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 aircraft to Denver and Salt Lake City between November and March. From April through October, the San Francisco company would offer 31 nonstop, round-trip flights to and from both cities, with three flights a day between Moab and Salt Lake, and two flights a day to and from Denver.

Rival bidder ViaAir of Maitland, Florida, would offer 12 weekly nonstop, round-trip flights between Canyonlands Field and Denver on 30-seat EMB-120 planes – the same aircraft that former carrier SkyWest Airlines operated through April of this year.

The two companies have also voiced an interest in the possibility of offering flights between Moab and Las Vegas, although Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff emphasized that no plans have been formalized at this point.

Both Groff and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said they can see the advantages to each proposal.

“I’m just torn between the two,” Groff said. “I like both of them; both have really good things to offer.”

Sakrison, who serves as the city’s representative on the airport board, said that ViaAir’s service is advantageous in the sense that it would be operating bigger planes.

“Their rates are really reasonable, and they’re flying a larger aircraft,” he said.

On the other hand, Sakrison said that he and other airport board members like Boutique Air’s proposal because it includes flights to Salt Lake City and Denver.

“That’s pretty attractive to us, as well, but the size of their aircraft is a concern for some of us,” he said.

The airport board plans to hold a special meeting on Thursday, Nov. 12, to go over the two proposals in greater detail.

Groff said that board members need more information before they make a final recommendation to the Grand County Council, which will ultimately forward its own preferences on to the transportation department.

“There are a bunch of things that we have to have clarified before we can make a decision,” Groff said.

“We just want to make sure that we’re crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s,” Sakrison said.

One concern is that ViaAir submitted a proposal for alternate Essential Air Service (EAS), which would operate under different funding mechanisms.

The company’s operations are currently limited to charter flights, so it is not eligible to receive funding directly through the transportation department’s Essential Air Service program. Instead, funding would have to follow a circuitous route from the department to the county to ViaAir.

“We get the bill from the airline, then we send it to EAS,” Groff said. “EAS then sends us the money, and we turn around and pay the airline.”

ViaAir is in the process of obtaining its certification to become an Essential Air Service carrier, but until its application is approved, Groff said there are questions as to whether the proposal would increase the county’s liability.

Groff said that airport board members are also concerned that the transportation department could set a precedent for future bids to serve the airport if it selects Boutique’s proposal to operate single-engine planes at Canyonlands Field.

“Our lives are already so complex out there – that’s the last thing we need: more stuff to worry about,” he said.

That situation has been complicated ever since SkyWest pulled out of its two-year contract to serve the airport.

Ogden-based Utah Airways is currently offering limited service between Canyonlands Field and Salt Lake City International Airport on Mondays and Fridays. But Moab has now been without Essential Air Service since the last SkyWest flight left Canyonlands Field on April 30.

Airport officials and community leaders had hoped to avoid any lengthy gaps in passenger airline service to Canyonlands Field when Great Lakes Aviation won a federal contract to take over from SkyWest. However, Great Lakes’ flights never got off the ground, and SkyWest did not follow the transportation department’s orders requiring it to provide service until Great Lakes was ready.

In the meantime, the airport lost its federal security screening services.

When it became clear that Great Lakes was not any closer to a start date, the transportation department took the unusual step of issuing a new request for proposals to serve both Canyonlands Field and Vernal Regional Airport.

If the transportation department selects Boutique as Moab’s Essential Air Service carrier, the company says it would begin local flights within one to two months after the agency issues its order.

Boutique is seeking an annual subsidy of just over $3.99 million, compared to ViaAir’s proposed subsidy of more than $3.98 million. However, ViaAir says it will lower its price by more than $680,000 if it receives contracts to serve both Canyonlands Field and Vernal.

ViaAir currently offers flights along the East Coast, including St. Augustine, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina, while Boutique’s service area spans across 15 communities from California to Texas to Nebraska.

Moab Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jodie Hugentobler said that she and others were deeply disappointed when SkyWest pulled out of Canyonlands Field. During the course of the next two-year contract period, she’s hopeful that the next EAS carrier can provide the same level of service.

“I just prefer that we have something that is reliable – that can get people here, and follow through with it,” she said. “I honestly don’t have a preference in terms of Denver or Salt Lake – as long as it’s reliable.”

Proposals include flights to SLC, Denver

I’m just torn between the two … I like both of them; both have really good things to offer.