Boutique Air will fly Pilatus PC-12 aircraft out of Canyonlands Fields Airport. [Photo courtesy of Boutique Air]

Canyonlands Field Airport is much closer to the resumption of passenger airline service.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that it has selected Boutique Air as Moab’s Essential Air Service carrier. (The department issued its announcement after the print edition of the Moab Sun News went to press this week.)

According to Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill, passenger airline service should be available by February 2016.

Boutique Air will offer three flights per day, from November to February or March – including two flights daily to Salt Lake City, and one to Denver. The airline will provide five flights per day during Moab’s busy tourist season.

Both the Grand County Airport Board and Grand County Council selected the San Francisco carrier as their preferred choice, after holding two special sessions, a regular airport board meeting, telephone interviews and a review of the two proposals submitted.

U.S. Department of Transportation Public Affairs specialist Caitlin Harvey said that when her agency reviews Essential Air Service proposals, it gives substantial weight to the views of elected officials who represent airline passengers.

ViaAir of Maitland, Florida, also submitted a proposal to serve Moab’s airport. It operates larger aircraft than Boutique, but it would offer just one route between Canyonlands Field and Denver.

“Whereas Boutique also offers a Moab to Salt Lake City route,” in addition to the Denver route, Hill said.

Another reason for choosing Boutique over ViaAir is that Boutique submitted an Essential Air Service proposal, as opposed to an alternative Essential Air Service program that ViaAir applied for.

Essential Air Service was established in response to the deregulation of airlines and subsidizes air travel in smaller U.S. markets like Moab.

An alternative EAS requires communities to submit a separate application to participate in that program, and it would require the county to pay the airline for services each month. The county would then seek reimbursement from the federal government, Hill said.

According to Hill, an alternative EAS “puts all the workload and liability on the county.”

“Because of that and positive reviews of Boutique, we decided to go with the traditional contract,” he said.

One advantage of ViaAir is its access to larger aircraft. Boutique will fly only eight- or nine-seat passenger aircraft, instead of accommodating dozens of people at a time, Hill said.

However, Hill said that Boutique’s aircraft is “one of the safest planes in the sky.”

Although the law only requires one pilot for this type of aircraft, it is Boutique’s policy to always have two pilots on board, Hill said.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said the airline offers executive seating, and added that the city is pleased about the prospect of working with Boutique.

“We’ve struggled this past year without an air service,” Sakrison said. “We’re looking forward to a relationship with these guys.”

The airport’s former air service provider – Sky West Airlines – broke its two-year Essential Air Service contract when it ceased operations at Canyonlands Field Airport in April 2015. Sky West had decided to stop flying its turboprop planes to become an all-jet airline. Moab’s airport is too small to accommodate large commercial jets.

Initially, three companies responded to the Transportation Department’s bid for a new air service provider – Redtail Aviation, Great Lakes Airlines and Boutique Air. Great Lakes was initially chosen because of its ability, like Sky West, to fly 30-seat aircraft, Hill said. Additionally, the airline was also approved for screening by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Great Lakes was supposed to start service by May 1, 2015. Unfortunately for Moab travelers, the Cheyenne, Wyoming-based company never showed up, Hill said.

Meanwhile, with no available air service, TSA withdrew its screening operation at the airport. The Transportation Department subsequently put out a new bid for Requests for Proposals for airline service in Moab. This time, airport and county officials supported Boutique’s bid for the contract.

“They can operate without TSA, which is good – it takes time to get TSA reestablished at an airport,” Hill said. “We can’t start the TSA process until we have an airline with scheduled times.”

According to the Transportation Department, EAS communities operate both with and without TSA screening. Communities, in cooperation with the air carrier, decide whether they want or need TSA screening.

Boutique customers will pay a little more than what ViaAir would have charged them: The company told the Transportation Department that its average fare would be $92. However, with more flights and routes, Boutique customers will have more options.

Eventually, bigger jets will be able to fly out of Moab. Work on expanding Canyonlands Field Airport runway will start next winter, Sakrison said. The project is expected to be completed by early 2017.

“We’re widening and lengthening the runway so we can accommodate larger planes,” Sakrison said. “Then we’ll be able to handle regional jets.”

Even without passenger service for the past several months, the airport has been busy, Hill said.

“There are a number of employees and businesses there that are equal to one block of Main Street in Moab,” he said.

Businesses include companies that offer skydiving, helicopter tours, hot air balloon rides, scenic air tours, a shuttle service, car rentals and United Parcel Service. Charter flights have also been available during this time.

“The airport itself is incredibly busy,” Hill said.

Providing passenger service again will add an additional boost to the local economy, he said.

Airline will offer multiple flights per day from Moab to SLC, Denver

We’ve struggled this past year without an air service … We’re looking forward to a relationship with these guys.