Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill, right, gave county council members an overview of two airlines' proposals to serve Canyonlands Field Airport, starting next year. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Are you happy with current passenger airline service from Canyonlands Field Airport to Salt Lake City and Denver, or would you rather travel on bigger planes to the larger of the two airports?

Now’s your chance to weigh in on a federal decision that will shape local airline travel in the coming two years, from March 2018 to February 2020.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking public comments through Friday, Aug. 4, on competing proposals from current Essential Air Service provider Boutique Air and former carrier SkyWest to serve Moab’s airport.

Boutique is proposing to continue its current schedule, which includes three round-trip flights per day to Salt Lake City, and two daily flights between Canyonlands Field and Denver. Under the San Francisco company’s $3.85 million proposal, eight- or nine-seat planes would serve both routes.

SkyWest Airlines’ $2.98 million proposal would offer 12 round-trip flights per week to Denver, or two flights per day from Thursdays through Mondays, and one flight each day on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

That’s the same number of flights that the St. George-based airline offered when it previously flew between Canyonlands Field and Denver, until it pulled out of its Essential Air Service contract just over one year into its two-year agreement. The key difference this time is that it would be flying 50-seat jets under the United Airlines banner – an upgrade from the smaller 30-seat aircraft that SkyWest has since phased out of service.

Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill told the Grand County Council this week that he believes SkyWest’s latest proposal to serve Denver would be a “great opportunity.”

Denver International Airport is the sixth-largest airport in the country, and according to Hill, it offers three times as many flights each day as Salt Lake City International Airport.

“So if we need to get anywhere else in the country, or in the world, Denver offers a substantially (greater) number of flights versus Salt Lake City,” Hill said during the council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, July 18.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, who serves as the city’s liaison to the airport board, said he thinks that both proposals have merit. But he said he personally prefers Boutique’s plan to continue service to Salt Lake City and Denver because it offers people like himself a more convenient route to meetings and appointments in Utah’s capital city.

“If we go to Denver, that means eight hours, at least, up and back,” Sakrison told the Moab Sun News. “I think that (service to both airports) better serves the community than just flights to Denver.”

Grand County Airport Board member Bob Greenberg said the cessation of passenger airline service to Salt Lake City would be a “big loss” to local residents. On the other hand, though, he said that SkyWest could offer smoother connections to other flights.

“They do tie into the national system better,” he told the Moab Sun News.

In addition, he said, SkyWest is proposing to utilize larger aircraft that can accommodate more passengers, which fits into his board’s plans to upgrade the airport’s runway and terminal.

“Fifty-passenger jets are a giant jump across, and that’s really what the airport board has been looking for, both with the runway expansion and the terminal expansion,” he said.

Although he was critical of SkyWest’s past move to discontinue its local service before its contract expired, Greenberg said he has positive impressions of both airlines.

“They’ve been great,” he said. “Boutique and SkyWest have both been head and shoulders above anybody we’ve had in the past.”

If it’s up to him, Moab resident Mark Hassel said he’d rather have continued service to Salt Lake City and Denver.

“What I’ve found is that flights going from Salt Lake City to another destination are actually cheaper than they are going from Denver,” he said, estimating that he’s saved about $100 to $200 by going through Salt Lake’s airport.

“It’s pretty significant, is what my impression was, when I was looking for flights,” he said.

Hassel said he thinks that Boutique has been doing a good job as an Essential Air Service carrier, adding that cost of a ticket – starting at $59 – beats the competition.

“The price is reasonable, and it’s actually cheaper than taking a bus from Moab to Salt Lake,” Hassel said.

While Moab resident Miso Tunks has never flown out of Canyonlands Field on a Boutique flight, he said that a good friend who attends school in the Salt Lake City area is one of the airline’s regular customers.

“He uses it every week,” Tunks said. “It saves him hours and hours … He’s a family man, and he loves it.”

Tunks sounds less enthusiastic about SkyWest’s proposal to resume its previous service to Denver, and Denver alone.

“It was silly then, and it’s silly now, because Salt Lake City is the logical path,” he said. “The Denver market is a whole nother ballgame.”

For Hill, though, one advantage to SkyWest’s proposal is that could boost the airport’s “enplanements,” or the number of passengers who board planes each year at Canyonlands Field and fly off to other destinations.

If Canyonlands Field hits the “magical number” of 10,000 annual enplanements, Hill said, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding to the airport would go up substantially, from a longtime figure of $150,000, to $1 million annually.

“So it makes the growth of the airport significantly easier,” he told the county council. “There are some cons associated with that as well … but all in all, it’s a significant benefit for the airport to reach that level of growth.”

Even if Boutique offered a maximum of five flights a day year-round, Hill said, the maximum number of enplanements would only add up to 14,600, compared to a maximum potential of 31,200 enplanements under SkyWest’s proposal.

“So there’s significantly more seats going outbound, which makes it a lot easier to reach 10,000 enplanements,” he said.

SkyWest’s proposal also makes it possible, he said, for larger groups of people to travel to Moab.

“If you have a family reunion, it’s difficult to split up a family, or a tour group, amongst three different flights spread across 12 hours,” he said.

County submits application for runway funding

The transportation department’s call for public comments on the Essential Air Service proposals comes as airport and county officials move forward with plans to widen and strengthen Canyonlands Field’s runway.

The county council voted 6-0 on July 18 to submit a funding application for $15 million to the FAA; Jaylyn Hawks was absent from the meeting.

The runway expansion project, which comes with an $833,333 funding obligation from the county, has an estimated price tag of $12.8 million. But county officials are seeking the higher figure because it’s easier to spend less money than it is to request additional funding at a later date, according to a memo from Hill.

Depending on how much funding the airport receives from the FAA, Hill said that construction work on the upgraded runway could run anywhere between 90 to 180 days.

Hill is anticipating that the FAA will respond to the county’s funding request by mid-September, assuming that the agency issues a final determination on the project’s Environmental Assessment before then.

In the meantime, Hill said that airport officials have been in touch with Boutique and SkyWest to keep them apprised of the runway expansion plans.

To begin work on the project, the airport is tentatively planning to shut down next January for about four months during the slowest time of the year.

“While it is a big hit on the businesses and people working out there, it is the least bad time to do it,” Hill said.

Among other things, the project will expand the runway’s width by 12.5 feet on either side; it also includes plans to install a new lighting system, as well as a massive culvert that will drain stormwater from the site.

It’s possible, Hill said, that weather-related delays may arise on occasion during those cooler months.

“But it’s better to have a little bit of delay associated with weather than to be closed during a period when we know they would be the most active,” he said.

The airport board will be holding a special meeting at a still-undetermined date later this month to discuss both Essential Air Service proposals in detail, and then submit a recommendation to the county council. The council, in turn, is expected to write a letter of support for one of the two proposals at its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 1.

Public comment period on Boutique, SkyWest proposals open through Aug. 4

Boutique and SkyWest have both been head and shoulders above anybody we’ve had in the past.

For more information, or to comment on the Essential Air Service proposals, go to: Enter “DOT-OST-1997-2827” in the search bar, and under “Sort By” on the Docket page, select “Posted (Newer-Older).”