After expressing a certain amount of reluctance to leave what they call the reliable service of Boutique Air, the Grand County Council and Grand County Airport Board will recommend that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) grant SkyWest Airlines the 2018 essential air service (EAS) contract at Canyonlands Field. County council members expressed satisfaction with Boutique Air, but said that with planned growth and expansion at the airport, Canyonlands Field would best be served by SkyWest’s 50-passenger regional jet service.
“SkyWest, I think it’s fair to say, left some people a little sour in our last engagement with [them],” said county council member Curtis Wells. “... [But] long term, I personally understand what’s best in terms of growing this economic engine for the community, which is the airport.”
SkyWest did serve Canyonlands Field in the past, but ended its EAS contract early in 2015 after the airline decided to phase out its 30-passenger planes in favor of 50-passenger jets. Because the airport’s runway was not wide enough to accommodate the larger regional jets, SkyWest informed the DOT that it could not continue providing service to Moab.
After SkyWest’s pullout, the airport board and county council immediately jumped into action, beginning a years-long process to widen and strengthen the runway to accommodate larger jets. That runway expansion is currently on schedule for completion by spring 2018.
Canyonlands Field Airport Manager Judd Hill said a contract with SkyWest — which will fly under the United Airlines banner — could provide the type of commercial air service the airport has been working toward for the last three years.
“The absolute goal has been the development of commuter jet service,” Hill said.
If the DOT awards SkyWest the 2018 EAS contract, the airline will fly 12 round-trip flights from Moab to Denver using 50-passenger jets, at a ticket price of approximately $82 each way.
The current EAS provider at Canyonlands Field, Boutique Air, also submitted a bid for the 2018 contract, proposing to continue its eight-seat passenger service to Salt Lake City and Denver at an average ticket price of $83 each way.
Some members of Grand County’s Airport Board, including Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, expressed disappointment that SkyWest did not submit a bid with service to Salt Lake City.
“I’ll be quite frank and honest,” Sakrison told SkyWest representatives July 27. “Denver doesn’t cut it. If you were going to Salt Lake, I wouldn’t have a problem.”
But during the county council meeting Aug. 1, Hill said SkyWest wants to establish the Moab market in Denver because that airport is the sixth largest in the nation and offers many more connections than Salt Lake City.
“In order to establish our market, they want to build up and prove that Moab is a cost-effective market to operate within,” Hill said. “... If they’re trying to establish a market, Denver is the best option because if you’re looking at trying to get people to come to Moab, it’s better to go to a place that has dozens or more cities and nations connecting to an airport, as well as the total number of operations a day going in and out of there.”
Speaking to the county council, Moab Area Travel Council Director Elaine Gizler added that flying to Denver “will make a huge difference” for international tourists looking to connect from all over the world.
“I fully support SkyWest going to Denver,” Gizler said. “For international travelers, to fly into Denver and have a direct flight into Moab rather than driving, I think, is very important.”
But for Moab’s residents needing to go to Salt Lake City for work or otherwise, airport board member Bob Greenberg said the drive from Moab has “not gotten to be any nicer.”
“I am sensitive to the fact that the tourist industry would love to see the 50-passenger jets. The locals are tied into Salt Lake,” Greenberg said. “It’s not gotten to be any nicer [of] a drive [in] the last four years.”
Still, airport board member Bill Hawley said that if the community wants to grow, the best path would be a contract with SkyWest Airlines.
“If we don’t fly more seats somehow, then we will not grow. We simply can’t. In Boutique’s proposal there aren’t enough seats to grow,” Hawley said. “... If we believe growth is the answer for us, I think SkyWest is the only viable way... It is true that if you build it — if you provide the seats — they will come.”
Greg Atkin, a SkyWest representative, told the airport board that 50-passenger jet service will increase the total number of enplanements — or passengers on a plane — for the community, which can help the airport receive more federal financial support once those numbers cross a certain threshold. Atkin also noted that more successful enplanements could maintain passenger service in general for Moab if Congress eventually cuts the EAS program.
“If EAS goes away ... the communities that have the right enplanement levels will be able to maintain service that is unsubsidized,” Atkin said. “The communities that don’t have enough enplanements ... when the subsidy goes away, the carrier will go away.”
Atkin also said Boutique Air’s proposed subsidy is almost $4 million, while SkyWest’s estimated subsidy is $2.9 million.
“We have a number of communities where we’ve grown traffic ... that are on a trajectory to not needing the EAS program anymore,” Atkin said.
Hill told The Times-Independent that there will be some “growing pains” in this process, but the airport must look in terms of decades — not months — to truly realize growth for the community.
“We’ll go through some growing pains, but it’s to serve the coming decades, not the coming weeks or months,” Hill said. “[SkyWest] gives us the highest probability of expansion for years and decades to come.”
However, the airport board members were initially split about their recommendation during their July 27 meeting. A motion to support the SkyWest EAS proposal failed by a 3-3 vote. That mood eventually shifted to a 3-1 recommendation for the airline during another meeting July 31, once board chairman Bill Groff read an apology letter from Atkin on behalf of SkyWest.
“I want to take this opportunity to extend our regret at our inability to fulfill our previous full term with your community due to the retirement of our [30-seat passenger jets],” Atkin wrote. “... Moab is a unique market and this service provides opportunities for every traveler type that enjoys all that your city has to offer. Thank you for the opportunity to regain your confidence in SkyWest Airlines. We are committed to providing quality, reliable air service and to rebuilding a strong partnership in Moab.”
After the airport board’s positive endorsement, the Grand County Council voted unanimously Aug. 1 to recommend SkyWest Airlines be awarded the EAS contract. Hill said he believes the DOT will announce its decision within the coming weeks.