A passenger airline carrier that developed a local reputation for flight cancellations and delays is competing with two small charter aviation companies for a two-year federal contract to serve Canyonlands Field Airport.
Great Lakes Aviation is proposing to launch twice-daily service between Moab's airport and Denver once current Essential Air Service carrier SkyWest Airlines flies its last planes to and from Salt Lake City on April 30.
Moab-based charter airline Redtail Aviation, meanwhile, submitted plans for 12 round-trip flights a week between Canyonlands Field and Salt Lake City, as well as two round-trip flights per week to an airport near Las Vegas. A third bidder, Boutique Air of San Francisco, is proposing three daily flights between Moab and Salt Lake City.
Grand County Airport Manager Judd Hill told the Grand County Council that he believes each one of the three proposals is worth consideration.
"I think that all of them have their merits," Hill said Jan. 19.
Both of the smaller companies would be flying nine-seat planes, while Great Lakes Aviation is proposing to use 30-seat Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia aircraft.
Redtail Aviation is currently limited to four round-trip flights per week, although the company said it's hopeful that it can get around that hurdle and provide seven-day service to and from Canyonlands Field, according to its Essential Air Service filings.
Under their proposals, both Redtail Aviation and Boutique Air flights would be diverted to the general aviation side of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
"When you land, instead of going to the air terminal, you go to the opposite side of the airport," Hill said.
In that case, passengers would likely need to catch shuttle buses to the airport's main terminal, according to Hill.
"It would be just as if a friend was dropping you off at that point. You would still have to check in, check your baggage and then go through security there," he said.
The Cheyenne, Wyoming-based Great Lakes previously served Canyonlands Field until early 2014, but it canceled its flights before its contract period was up. At the time, Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell informed local airport officials that his airline did not have enough pilots or crew members to serve Canyonlands Field – a shortage that he linked to new federal regulations governing pilots.
Speaking on his own behalf, Grand County Airport Board chairman Bill Groff said he believes that Great Lakes is better positioned to deal with the regulations, which require co-pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flight experience before they can be hired.
"From what I've read, they are on the comeback from that," Groff said Jan. 20, noting that the congressionally mandated rules affected every small airline -- not just Great Lakes.
In the time since the carrier lost the previous Essential Air Service contract to SkyWest, Groff believes that Great Lakes officials have been paying close attention to the demand for SkyWest's service. That could explain why the company is proposing to upgrade its service from 19-seat planes to 30-seat planes, he said.
"The fact that SkyWest is filling 30-seat airplanes may have opened their eyes quite a bit, and I think they can continue to do that," he said.
Hill said he believes Great Lakes' latest bid is a sign that company officials learned from SkyWest's experiences at Canyonlands Field.
"They have really looked back and seen what our market can offer them," he said. "And so that's why the bid that they proposed is a direct flight. There's no longer stops; we're not an intermediary stop. We are the destination."
SkyWest took over service to Canyonlands Field in March 2014, earning rave reviews from passengers and local officials who praised it for its reliability. According to Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, SkyWest has canceled just one flight to date.
However, the company's decision to terminate that service caught airport board members and other local officials off guard.
Less than one year into its two-year contract, the St. George company announced that it could no longer serve Canyonlands Field because it is switching its entire fleet to larger planes that the airport's existing runway cannot accommodate.
While airport board members have said they were disappointed by SkyWest's announcement, Hill said the company did give the U.S. Department of Transportation ample warning that it would be pulling out of Canyonlands Field.
As a result, he said he expects to see a smooth transition in carriers, and he speculated that new airline service could begin as early as May 1.
"It's highly possible that that kind of transition could happen," he said.
At the very worst, Hill said he doesn't anticipate that the lag would last for more than a couple of weeks.
"I think that with the amount of lead time that we have, it could be days, if that," he said.
The Grand County Airport Board is expected to come up with a recommendation for a new airline carrier at its Feb. 2 meeting.
Neither the board's members nor the county council have the final say over the new contract, but Hill said that their voices carry weight with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"They can obviously take a stakeholder's recommendation, and it comes with a lot of (influence)," he said.
During the last bidding period, for instance, community support for SkyWest factored heavily into the department's decision to approve that company's contract, even though it was considerably higher than the lowest proposal.
This time around, the lowest bid for just under $1.86 million annually came from Redtail Aviation. Boutique Air is seeking a full-year subsidy of more than $2.5 million, while Great Lakes' proposal came in between the two, at $2.24 million annually.
Sakrison, who serves as the city's representative to the airport board, thinks that Great Lakes “probably” has the best shot at the new contract.
But he let out an audible sigh when the Moab Sun News asked him what he thinks of the company's proposal.
"It's still going to Denver," he said. "I'm not really wild about that idea -- I'd prefer that they fly to Salt Lake City."
He's also disappointed with the company's past record of cancellations and delays.
"I hope that their level of service improves over what it was," Sakrison said.
Groff, however, sees advantages to Great Lakes' proposal: For one thing, the company has a code-sharing partnership with United Airlines at the Denver International Airport, as well as interline e-ticketing and baggage agreements with United, Delta and American Airlines.
Moab resident Marc Thomas noted that there seems to be a preference for service to and from Salt Lake City. Yet at the same time, he said, local residents seem to prefer larger aircraft.
"None of the bids are really optimal, and we have to sort of -- for two years, anyway -- go with something that's not perfect," Thomas said.
Grand County Councilman Ken Ballantyne said that local outfitters and others who rely on the service simply want to know what's happening.
"They're anxious to find out what's going on," Ballantyne said.
They're not alone, according to Hill.
"I get multiple calls and emails from around the planet saying, 'I can't book my flight to Moab. What's up?'" he said.
Regardless of the transportation department's final decision, Hill said that the process to improve the airport's runway will continue, thereby allowing Canyonlands Field to eventually handle larger aircraft.
"That is still on track and on schedule," he said.