Passengers boarded SkyWest Airlines' final flight from Canyonlands Field Airport in April 2015 as a pilot gave the thumbs-up. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that it has awarded an Essential Air Service contract to SkyWest for a two-year period that is set to begin in March 2018. [Moab Sun News file photo]

Welcome back, SkyWest Airlines.

Beginning March 1, 2018, the St. George company is tentatively set to resume passenger airline service between Canyonlands Field Airport and Denver International Airport.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that it awarded a two-year contract to the company for Essential Air Service to and from Moab through late February 2020. SkyWest is planning to operate 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.

SkyWest spokesperson Layne Watson said the projected start date of March 1 could be delayed by the airport’s $12.8 million runway expansion project. Airport officials are planning to shut Canyonlands Field down next January for about four months to widen the runway, and to make other improvements.

“The date is a little fluid, depending on that,” Watson said.

The airline asked the transportation department for an annual federal subsidy of more than $2.98 million – about $862,000 lower than a competing bid from current Essential Air Service carrier Boutique Air of San Francisco. But the lower bid was not the only factor in SkyWest’s favor.

Under federal law, the department is required to give “substantial weight” to local elected officials’ views, and in this case, the Grand County Airport Board and the Grand County Council voted unanimously to support SkyWest’s proposal.

If it had been up to local residents who submitted written comments on the latest contract, though, the federal contract would have gone to Boutique: The overwhelming majority of them voiced their support for that company’s proposal to continue flights that link Moab with Salt Lake City and Denver.

Moab resident Jayne Belnap said that she and other local travelers routinely fly to Salt Lake City for personal and medical reasons. When she found out that the airport board and county council had voted to support SkyWest’s bid, she urged the transportation department to reject their recommendation.

“As a common citizen of Moab, I beg you not to do that,” Belnap said in written comments to the department. “That recommendation is coming from the business interests of Moab, not the people who actually live here.”

Belnap’s husband, Steve Anderson, told the Moab Sun News that he believes local residents had little say in the recommendation from county officials.

“I think it’s a contract that was motivated by the businesses in town, without much thought to the people (who live here),” Anderson said. “What they’re doing is using the airline to pipe in tourists, and not using the airline to meet the needs of the people.”

Boutique stepped in nearly two years ago, after SkyWest withdrew from its previous contract and the transportation department selected former Essential Air Service carrier Great Lakes Aviation to provide service for the remainder of that contract period. Great Lakes flights never got off the ground, though, and SkyWest did not follow the transportation department’s orders requiring it to provide service until Great Lakes was ready.

The gap left Moab without passenger airline service for 11 months, until Boutique resumed flights in March 2016. With no commercial flights during that time, Canyonlands Field lost federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening at the airport – services that airport officials are now working to restore.

SkyWest to utilize bigger planes

Watson said that SkyWest will be flying 50-seat CRJ200 jets under the United Airlines Express banner – an upgrade from the smaller 30-seat aircraft that SkyWest has since phased out of service.

According to Watson, the company opted for service to Denver – the country’s sixth-largest airport – because it’s a United hub, offering passengers easy access to hundreds of connecting flights. Watson said that SkyWest’s agreement with United will also enable passengers to accrue travel miles with its much-larger partner.

“This service provides opportunities for every traveler type (who) enjoys all that Moab has to offer,” he said.

Boutique, in contrast, was proposing to continue round-trip flights to Denver and Salt Lake City on much smaller eight-seat planes.

Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff said that airport officials were up-front with Boutique officials when they initially met with them about Canyonlands Field’s long-range plans.

“We told them two years ago that they were just going to be a Band-Aid, and that we were going to go after SkyWest,” Groff said.

While both airlines have earned high marks for reliable service to Canyonlands Field, Groff said that SkyWest’s regional jet service meshes with the airport’s expansion plans, which have been in the works for the past eight years.

For him, one advantage to SkyWest’s proposal is that it’s expected to 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 reaches 10,000 annual enplanements, he noted, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funding to the airport would go up substantially, from a longtime figure of $150,000, to $1 million annually. It could not meet those numbers, he said, if Boutique continued to operate its smaller aircraft.

“What we felt is that if we voted to (recommend that) Boutique stay here, we would be going backwards,” he said.

Groff said he understands that many local residents want cheap airfares to Salt Lake City.

“But I’m looking at the overall picture of bringing in (bigger) groups of people,” he said. “Boutique couldn’t do that.”

Utah Airways of Ogden briefly operated flights two days per week between Canyonlands Field and the Salt Lake City International Airport’s general aviation terminal. But that service has since been discontinued, and Groff said that no other airlines have voiced an interest in offering unsubsidized service between the two airports.

Without the federal subsidy, Groff said, it’s unlikely that Boutique could afford to continue local service.

“That airplane’s expensive to operate,” he said. “(Fares) would jump five to 10 times as much (without it).”

SkyWest’s association with a major airline carrier like United allows passengers to check their luggage directly to destinations worldwide, and it has the means to add more service destinations, making it an obvious choice for traveler James Ogle.

“Unfortunately, the current carrier will always be restrained by the size and capacity of their aircraft,” Ogle told the transportation department. “If the intent is to put Moab back on the full service airline map, (SkyWest) is the only option.”

Ogle’s views, however, were the exception among those who submitted written comments about both proposals: Others echoed Moab resident Finn Wanczyk, who said that Boutique’s service is a throwback to the old days of air travel, when people looked forward to and enjoyed their flights.

Flights to both Salt Lake City and Denver, he said, are necessary options.

“I think it is irresponsible and unreasonable to even consider an airline that does not include regular and reliable service to Salt Lake City,” he wrote. “Moab is a Utah town and Salt Lake, our (capital), draws many from this community north for state legislation, business, medical assistance, and family matters.”

Wanczyk said that SkyWest’s track record at Canyonlands Field shows that it has no vested interest in – nor a real commitment to – local residents.

“They pull up and leave when they want to,” he wrote. “Why on earth would you even consider offering them another contract?”

Moab resident Sandy Hinck said that she frequently uses the Salt Lake City International Airport as a hub for national and international flights, and Boutique Airlines has made her travels much easier. The lack of direct service to Salt Lake City, she said, would be a disservice and inconvenience to local residents and visitors alike – especially after Elevated Transit recently discontinued its bus service from southeastern Utah to the state’s capital.

Needless to say, she’s disappointed with the agency’s decision.

“The residents of Moab deserve an affordable and customer-driven airline to access Salt Lake City, which Boutique Airlines so reliably provided,” Hinck told the Moab Sun News. “Ending the Salt Lake City route will impact our ability to conveniently access medical facilities, business meetings, friends and family. I feel it is a loss for the residents of our community.”

Watson told the Moab Sun News that SkyWest plans to serve Canyonlands Field far into the foreseeable future.

“We’re excited to be coming back to Moab next year,” he said. “…We anticipate being in Moab for a long time.”

Airline plans Denver flights; Moab to lose Salt Lake service in 2018

What we felt is that if we voted to (recommend that) Boutique stay here, we would be going backwards.