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8:08 AM Mon, Sept. 24th

<font size="3">Mayor: 'I'm sick about it'</font><BR>Airport to lose Mesa Airlines

PRESCOTT – A program that initially set out to improve rural air service in the state has resulted in a situation that local officials say is a "major step backwards" for Prescott.

On Wednesday, local officials learned that the state had awarded the Essential Air Service (EAS) contract for commercial flights in Prescott to Great Lakes Airlines.

That is in direct conflict with the wishes of the Prescott City Council, which unanimously recommended in November that Mesa Airlines continue to provide commercial air service to Prescott.

"I'm sick about it, because people are not going to be using that airline," Mayor Rowle Simmons said of the pending switch to Great Lakes. "It's a major step backwards for us."

He pointed out, for instance, that a change to Great Lakes would mean that Prescott would lose the affiliation with America West, which it currently has through Mesa Airlines.

That means that passengers who board a commercial flight in Prescott would no longer go to a secure area in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, said Prescott Airport Manager Rick Severson. Because of the current affiliation with America West, Prescott passengers go through security only once – in Prescott.

But Great Lakes passengers currently go to a gate next to Terminal 2, Severson said, which is not secure. Passengers then have to retrieve their own baggage and proceed through the airport security at Sky Harbor.

Mickey Bowman, director of planning for Mesa Air Group, said Wednesday afternoon that company officials are "shocked and amazed" at the state's decision on the Prescott contract.

"We think it is a decision that is very ill-advised," Bowman said, adding that he believed the move would have a "negative impact on passenger" numbers in Prescott.

The situation dates back to a 2003 federal grant that aimed to improve air service for rural communities such as Prescott, Kingman, Page and Show Low. The Arizona Department of Transportation's aeronautical division, which administered the $1.5 million grant, was hopeful at the time that the rural communities could band together to more efficiently contract for their air service, and ultimately receive "an economy of scale."

The grant program intended to use the EAS subsidies that go to airlines that provide service to small communities. Mesa Airlines currently receives more than $1 million per year in EAS money for its service to Prescott and Kingman.

After the state advertised for proposals from interested airlines, a special committee evaluated the four proposals, and voted 8-3 to award the contract for the involved communities to Great Lakes.

But the Prescott City Council balked at that recommendation, and vehemently opposed switching to Great Lakes Airlines.

Simmons said he was hopeful at that time that the council's strong views on the matter would be enough to convince the state to leave Prescott out of the Great Lakes contract. "Our views as a community should have carried the day," he said. "But it's quite evident that they're not paying attention to the needs of our community."

Severson, who was still evaluating the state document Wednesday afternoon, said it appears to award a two-year contract to Great Lakes Airlines for $3.8 million per year, to cover air service for Prescott, Kingman, Show Low and Page.

Under the terms of the contract, the switch to Great Lakes would take place within 90 days, Severson said.

Both Severson and Simmons expressed hope that Mesa Airlines might continue to serve the Prescott Airport, despite the decision on the EAS contract. If that were to happen, Severson said, the airport would do what it would take to accommodate both airlines.

Bowman, however, said it would be difficult for Mesa to compete, considering that Great Lakes would be receiving a government subsidy. "There is very little chance of us staying in the marketplace," he said.

Severson said the contract provides for three flights a day between Prescott and Phoenix – similar to the current situation. He added that "fares will be up to the airline."

Along with the likely changes in air service, city officials say the switch to Great Lakes could also affect the city's plans to build a new airport terminal. Just this past week, Severson was hopeful that the city would pass the 10,000-passenger mark in the coming year, which would make it eligible for $1 million in grant money for the terminal.

But with the change to Great Lakes, he said, that is much less likely – a situation that puts the $1 million grant money "in jeopardy."

Officials with Great Lakes Airlines and the Arizona Department of Transportation's aeronautical division were unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com