New Mexico EAS Communities Want Albuquerque (Not Denver) Service

Editor's Note: On April 4, the DOT issued a new order rescinding the award to Great Lake Airlines and opening up the EAS contract for new bids. (Read a follow-up story from the local newspaper.)

Denver and Phoenix are apparently not as attractive destinations as Albuquerque to some New Mexico communities.

In a new essential air service (EAS) contract, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded another two-year franchise to Great Lakes Airlines to fly from Clovis and Silver City, NM. While the communities want Great Lakes to continue to link their small towns to Albuquerque, DOT is instead routing all flights to Denver and Phoenix.

Both the state and Silver City have since asked that the new contract be reworked with some flights scheduled for Albuquerque.

Great Lakes will continue to fly the current schedule until a new agreement can be reached with DOT and the local communities, according to Monica Taylor, the airline’s marketing manager. In the new contract, effective May 1, DOT says it would permit a one-for-one swap of flights of Albuquerque for Denver on the Clovis route.

A DOT spokesperson says the agency is now reviewing the requests to change the contract.

In making the contract award earlier this month, DOT selected the cheapest options that Great Lakes presented in its proposal package. Great Lakes will fly 18 round-trips per week from Clovis to Denver for an annual subsidy of $999,932. It will fly from Silver City 12 round-trips a week to Phoenix for an annual subsidy of $699,968.

All service will be provided in a 19-passenger Beechcraft 1900D.

In its proposal, Great Lakes sought a subsidy of $2.4 million to provide the same service it is now flying. The airline flies 12 weekly nonstop, round-trips from each city to Albuquerque. As part of this option, it would also fly a daily round trip from Clovis to Denver.

The current subsidy, $1.7 million, only covers the 24 round-trip flights to Albuquerque.

Taylor says that a daily Clovis-to-Denver trip is currently flown without an EAS subsidy. The flight is routed through Amarillo, TX, and then onto Denver. The Amarillo to Denver leg is also not subsidized. Taylor notes that while the route is not profitable, it positions aircraft so that the 1900s can be serviced at its Denver maintenance station.

Great Lakes was the only carrier competing for the EAS contract.

When it submitted its proposal, Taylor says that Great Lakes had to anticipate that other carriers would compete and perhaps offer route options to Denver and Phoenix. In the EAS bidding process, a carrier cannot change its proposal once it’s been submitted.

Great Lakes, based in Cheyenne, WY, is generally competing for western EAS contracts with Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines and Big Sky Airlines, based in Billings, MT. Neither carrier competed for this EAS contract.

Great Lakes has code-sharing agreements with both United Airlines and Frontier Airlines, both with hubs in Denver. Travelers can purchase a single ticket on either major carrier for their ultimate destination. Taylor explains.

In reviewing the proposals, Silver City apparently endorsed the wrong option, according to both Taylor and Robert Scavron, an attorney representing Silver City. Scavron says that Silver City wanted to maintain the Albuquerque service and build upon it with additional flights to Phoenix. “There was no intention to abandon Albuquerque as our air service hub,” Scavron says.

“The elimination of Albuquerque in the route structure is not acceptable,” adds Thomas Baca, New Mexico’s aviation director. “Early reaction from travelers in both communities regarding these changes is not favorable. I fully realize that cost does enter the selection equation,” Baca says. “However, we believe the actual desires of the potential passengers who will be utilizing this service should be weighted very heavily in arriving at your final decision.”

Pacific Wings, which had been flying EAS routes in Hawaii, had submitted a proposal to provide 12 weekly round-trips from both Clovis and Silver City to Albuquerque for an annual subsidy of $1.4 million. Pacific Wings pulled its proposal in February after it failed to secure an endorsement from any local government.

The EAS rules require that the service be provided on an aircraft with at least 15 seats. Pacific Wings proposed flying the route with a 9-seat Cessna Grand Caravan. DOT noted that Pacific Wings would have had to secure a waiver from each community to have its smaller plane considered.

In its proposal, Pacific Wings noted that its aircraft was better suited for the New Mexico routes since most of the Beechcraft 1900s were flying nearly empty. Clovis last summer averaged 7.5 daily enplanements, with daily capacity at 114 seats. The Silver City routes were slightly more traveled with 8.6 daily enplanements, with 76 available seats.

Pacific Wings also noted that in its proposal that it was able to wean the Hawaiian routes off EAS and it would try to duplicate that feat in New Mexico.

Pacific Wings withdrew its proposal on Feb. 20 after it failed to win over any New Mexico community. In its withdrawal letter, Greg Kahlstorf, president of Pacific Wings, notes that it could not get a hearing in Silver City on its proposal.

“By refusing to listen to proposals and denying new entrants an opportunity to share their offerings with the community, elected officials with allegiances to the incumbent can forestall entry by new competitors indefinitely at taxpayer expense,” Kahlstorf wrote to DOT.