Future flights from Moab’s Canyonlands Regional Airport will likely be directed to Phoenix under a new agreement with a small airline, Airport Director Tammy Howland reported at the Grand County Commission meeting on April 18. 

The airport’s current contract with SkyWest Airlines ends on June 30 and Howland offered the commission two choices for keeping service at the airport: a proposal from Boutique Air to fly three daily flights to Denver on 9-seat planes and a plan to contract with Contour Airlines for 12 weekly round trip flights to Phoenix in a 30-seat regional jet. 

A previous proposal from SkyWest, the current provider which flies to Denver and Salt Lake City, was declared ineligible. 

“Neither one of these plans are exactly what we want,” Howland said. “The only alternative to that is no service, and I think we all agree that’s not acceptable,” she said. 

Contour Airlines is part of the American Airlines system, which flies out of Phoenix. Contour CEO Matt Chaifetz called into the meeting to address questions.

Commissioner Bill Winfield expressed trepidation about switching airport hubs to Phoenix. 

“A bigger part of our market is in Denver and Salt Lake is number two,” Winfield said. 

“If you’re making a connection, I think Phoenix is just as viable as Denver,” Chaifetz said. “American Airlines has nonstop service from Phoenix to tons of destinations across the United States.” 

Air service to Moab is federally subsidized through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flights to and from locations that otherwise might not be a profitable market for the airline. The program was created in the 1970s; Canyonlands Regional Airport is one of 115 EAS airports in the 48 contiguous states.

“​​You see a lot of EA contracts facing the same situation now,” Howland said. “You’re not going to see the regional jets like we have before…because of the pilot shortage.”

Fewer airlines are offering small airports larger jet services due to a pilot shortage. Smaller planes mean pilots can have different certifications and are not required to automatically retire. 

The proposal from Boutique Air, which provided air service to Canyonlands prior to SkyWest, was submitted through the traditional EAS bid system. Howland encouraged the commissioners to consider using an alternative funding structure using the same pool of federal money to contract with Contour Airlines directly.

In a letter to the commission included with the meeting agenda, Howland said that an important piece of why she favors the Contour deal is the ability to keep jet service at the airport, which is currently planning an expansion. 

“Due to their aircraft size, [Boutique Airlines may] restrict our ability to justify expansion to attract larger airlines,” she wrote. 

The commission voted unanimously to support Howland’s proposal, while Commissioner Kevin Walker added a note of caution as well. 

“It seems like sometimes there’s a tension between ‘is our goal to get tourists here, or is our goal to provide essential air service for residents?’” said Walker. “Growing the airport as fast as possible is not the same thing as providing the best service for residents.”

Contour’s Chaifetz asserted that the new service by Contour would keep fares to Moab low, from $40-80 as a one-way add-on fare. 

“We have local fares for people literally just getting off in Phoenix, but then we have a set of lower fares that are only eligible to be purchased as part of a ticket with American Airlines,” he said. “That’s how we ensure that our connecting fares … are still a very reasonable cost.”