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10:08 PM Fri, Nov. 16th

New airline contract delays plans for airport terminal

PRESCOTT ­ For years, a new terminal at the Prescott Airport has been a top priority for the Prescott City Council.

As recently as eight months ago, city officials were moving ahead with plans for a multi-million-dollar airport terminal. In November 2004, the council approved a $389,170 design contract to take the planning for a 22,000-square-foot terminal to the next level.

But the planning experienced a setback this year with the announcement that a new Essential Air Service (EAS) contract would change the commercial carrier at the Prescott Airport.

Now, in anticipation of a decrease in passenger numbers, the city's budget for the coming year barely mentions the new terminal. Only in the airport's five-year plan does the terminal appear, and that is not until fiscal year 2009.

Ultimately, say city officials, the recent change to Great Lakes Airlines probably has pushed off the plans for a new terminal for about four years.

For local officials, the matter hinges on passenger numbers, which translate into grant money for the city.

Airport Manager Rick Severson noted that the passenger counts on the previous commercial carrier, Mesa Airlines, had recently been approaching the 10,000-passengers-per-year mark. That would have made Prescott eligible for grant aid from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that may have contributed as much as $3 million over three years toward the cost of the new terminal.

Indeed, numbers that Mesa submitted to the city showed that 887 passengers boarded commercial flights in Prescott during May. The total had been increasing consistently for the past several months, Severson said ­ from 788 in April, 762 in March, and 642 in February.

Based on the 887 number, he said, Prescott would have reached the 10,000-passenger mark by the end of 2005.

Meanwhile, however, a new EAS contract, which got state and federal approval earlier this year, replaced Mesa with a new carrier, Great Lakes Airlines. The new company began service in early June.

About 40 people packed into the old airport terminal this week to join Great Lakes in a ribbon-cutting for the new airline service.

And although city officials say they support Great Lakes' efforts, the early numbers from the airline indicate that passengers are reluctant to give the company a try.

Monica Taylor, director of sales and marketing for Great Lakes, reported that 35 passengers boarded Great Lakes flights in Prescott during the company's first week of operation. That compares with Mesa's more than 200 passengers a week for May, city officials said.

Taylor acknowledged that Great Lakes' numbers are "a little lower than we anticipated." She attributed the decrease to the fact that the airline is new in the community, and area residents are still uncertain about the service. "I think there is a negative tone in the community," she said.

But Taylor told the crowd on Wednesday that the first week and a half of service had proven "that we do operate reliably." And she was optimistic that the company could turn things around.

The company's original goal was to have 5,500 passengers per year, Taylor said. But "right now, we're on track for about 2,900, so we're way off," she said. "But we're confident we can increase enplanements."

Despite the low numbers during the first week of service, city officials also were hoping that passenger counts would increase. Severson noted that the first week is probably not a good indicator, urging the public to wait at least a month before scrutinizing numbers.

And Mayor Rowle Simmons said he still holds out hope that Great Lakes will work out an arrangement with America West to get access to Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

Currently, Great Lakes has an affiliation with United and Frontier airlines, and has a gate at Sky Harbor's Terminal 2.

"The big question is whether they will get access to Terminal 4 and code share with America West," Simmons said. "The jury's still out on that. But once they get that obstacle covered, theoretically, (passenger numbers) should get back to where they were."

Taylor said Great Lakes continues to work with America West to get access to Terminal 4.