SkyWest Airlines informed the manager at Canyonlands Field Airport on Monday that the airline will discontinue service to the airport effective April 30, 2015, ending its Essential Air Service contract one year early.
“With this announcement by SkyWest, we will lose them as our Essential Air Service (EAS) provider next spring, before the end of their two-year contract,” airport manager Judd Hill announced to city and county staff on Monday.
In response, Hill said the airport wants to immediately begin negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to establish a new service provider by May 2015.
But until the U.S. Department of Transportation (UDOT), which oversees the EAS program, receives SkyWest’s official notice, it cannot move forward with the process of vetting new service providers.
“Everyone is aware that it’s happening, but until the official letters go through, we can’t go forward,” Hill told the Grand County Council on Tuesday, Nov. 18.
Airport board member Bob Greenberg had one word to describe SkyWest’s early cancellation of their service contract: “Ouch.”
“It’s distressing to the economic growth of this community,” Greenberg said. “The airport is an engine for growth and suddenly one of its cylinders has gone out.”
SkyWest’s cancellation of its service contract comes after a corporate decision to discontinue using 30-passenger turbo prop planes in favor of 50-passenger CRJ 200 jets.
Because the runway at Canyonlands Field cannot currently accommodate the larger planes, the airport recently accelerated a plan to expand the runway by 2016.
Hill said that despite SkyWest’s announcement, the airport will move forward with the runway expansion.
“As far as the increase to the airport for the long-term growth of the community, that isn’t changing. This will still have a huge benefit to the community with or without SkyWest,” Hill told the county council.
However, once Canyonlands Field finishes the runway expansion, Hill feels confident SkyWest will return.
“It was a corporate decision that they’re dong for the best interest of their company,” Hill said. “They did say they wanted to come right back as soon as we have a larger runway.”
The news of SkyWest’s early departure comes amid the airport board’s excitement about an uptick in enplanement numbers. Currently at over 9,000 enplanements, Canyonlands Field is closer than ever to reaching 10,000 enplanements by the end of the year.
If the airport reaches 10,000 passengers boarded onto planes, it will be entitled to $1 million in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) money to fund airport improvements, a significant increase from its current FAA funding at $150,000.
Since SkyWest became the EAS provider at Canyonlands Field in March, the airport has seen a significant uptick in enplanements each month, which Hill attributes to SkyWest’s reliable service.
Airport board members and management had hoped that if Canyonlands Field did not reach 10,000 enplanements this year, it would in 2015 with a full year of SkyWest service.
Hill says that although reaching 10,000 enplanements next year is now “unlikely,” it’s impossible to know.
“If we get another service provider with good, reliable service like SkyWest it could happen,” he said.
Hill said the airport can overcome the loss of SkyWest.
“We’ve chosen to go forward with getting our airport larger, this will ultimately benefit economic development. This is definitely a setback, but until we’re large enough, every two years we have to deal with getting another Essential Air Service provider,” Hill said.
In 10 to 20 years, the airport wants “to be beyond” needing the subsidized service, he said.
Greenberg noted that the EAS program, designed as a subsidy to verify that air service is available to smaller, rural communities, is struggling nationwide.
“The EAS program nationwide is struggling because of new federal regulations and an aging fleet,” Greenberg said.
He noted that Canyonlands Field’s last service provider, Great Lakes, was not able to provide reliable service in the last few months it held the EAS contract due to internal issues.
“They’re still struggling,” Greenberg said. “I don’t know if they’re even back strong enough yet to bid on us.”
Despite of the surprise announcement by SkyWest, Hill remained positive.
“While this is not the news that everyone would like to hear, it only represents a specific date and event that we have to plan around,” he wrote to city and county officials.
“With this announcement, we have to adjust our course and continue on as we work with local, state, and federal agencies to have our airport grow and meet the demand that we desire,” Hill said.
ByBy Molly Marcello