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2:54 AM Tue, Sept. 25th

Prescott Airport: New contract approaches for commercial air service

PRESCOTT ­ Within the next two months, the Prescott Airport will be in line for a new commercial airline-service contract, and city officials say the stakes of that deal are high.

Prescott Airport Manager Rick Severson reported this week that he expects the U.S. Department of Transportation to publish a request for proposals in February seeking companies interested in providing commercial air service between Kingman, Prescott and Phoenix.

Evaluation of the bids, which should allow for local involvement, will begin by about March or April. But the final decision on who gets the contract will be up to the federal transportation department, Severson said.

Depending on the outcome, city officials say the new contract could help to turn things around for the local airport.

"There really is a lot at stake in this contract," Severson said.

Since summer 2005, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines has provided the commercial air service between the Prescott Airport and Phoenix.

Right from the beginning of the contract, city officials voiced concerns with the results. While the previous company, Mesa Airlines, had been attracting about 800 passengers per month, Great Lakes' numbers plummeted to just more than 200 per month.

Even though numbers since have increased to about 400 passengers per month, Severson pointed out this week that is still about one-half of what the city had come to expect from Mesa.

And the 4,469 total passengers during 2006 is less than one-half the 10,000 passengers the airport would need to qualify for Federal Aviation Administration grant help with a proposed new airport terminal.

The contract with Great Lakes stemmed from a $1.8 million Small Community Air Service pilot program grant that the city received, along with a consortium of rural airports in Page, Kingman, Sierra Vista and Show Low. The consortium aimed to benefit from volume by including all five airports in a single contract.

For local officials, the issue has always centered on the change of terminals at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. While Mesa used Terminal 4, with access to America West/U.S. Airways, Great Lakes uses Terminal 2, with access to United Airlines. City officials maintain that the change made the Prescott-to-Phoenix flight less convenient for local residents.

The city objected to the contract with Great Lakes in early 2005, but the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Arizona Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which administered the program, ultimately chose Great Lakes for the consortium.

City Manager Steve Norwood pointed out that the current Essential Air Service contract expires on June 1. With another contracting round coming up, city officials are hoping for a more advantageous arrangement. And that could involve Mesa, Great Lakes, or another airline, they say.

"We're not married to Mesa, anymore than to Great Lakes," Norwood said. "The issue is the terminal."

Severson agreed, pointing out that the city's problems with the current contract have revolved around passenger counts. "It could very well be Great Lakes," he said of the new contract. "They do operate on time, and they have been a good performer."

Severson said he would like to see bids that offer options for the city. "I would hope the carriers would get creative and try again for a Las Vegas connection," he said. He stressed, however, that the final decision would lie with the federal transportation department. "It's their contract," Severson said of the U.S. DOT.

Meanwhile, Severson said, the city's plans to build a new airport terminal continue in a "holding pattern," as they have been ever since passenger numbers dropped in 2005.

For the city to qualify for millions of dollars in FAA grant money for the project, the airport would need to more than double its annual passenger count. "Ten thousand is the magic number," Severson said.

Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com