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3:03 AM Sun, Nov. 18th

Airline contract up for proposal

PRESCOTT ­ After two years of dealing with an airline contract that turned out to have less than beneficial passenger numbers, a new arrangement could be in the works for the Prescott Airport.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a request for proposals, soliciting companies interested in providing commercial air service for Prescott, Page and Show Low.

Depending on the outcome, the bidding process could pit Great Lakes Airlines, the company currently providing the air service between Prescott and Phoenix, against Mesa Airlines, the company that previously provided the service.

In 2005, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines won a two-year federal Essential Air Service contract for Prescott, Kingman, Sierra Vista, and Show Low.

Monica Taylor, director of sales and marketing for Great Lakes, reported this week that the company plans to submit a proposal to continue on with the service.

Prescott Airport Manager Rick Severson pointed out that Mesa Airlines also has indicated interest in bidding on the contract.

Despite the possibility of a replay of the previous bidding competition,

Severson said this year's contracting round would be somewhat different than the process two years ago.

For instance, he said, the new cycle apparently will allow plenty of involvement by local officials and residents ­ a change that Severson said looks to be advantageous to local air service.

"The community input part of this will play a larger role," he said, adding that local residents should let the federal department know their opinions about local air service. "The more, the better," he said.

Because the Arizona Department of Transportation opted not to be involved this year, Severson said public comments would go directly to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would take the community's wishes into account in making the choice.

The local feedback failed to make a difference two years ago, when the Prescott City Council unanimously supported continuing on with Mesa. Ultimately, however, a state-administered consortium of rural airports chose Great Lakes.

Despite an early promotion push by the airline, passenger numbers plummeted ­ from Mesa's 800 passengers per month, to just more than 200 monthly passengers with Great Lakes. While Great Lakes' numbers ultimately rose to nearly 400 passengers per month, the totals still fell short of Mesa's.

Another change in this year's process will involve a possible elimination of Kingman from the contract. The U.S. Department of Transportation's request for proposals states, "The department is requesting all interested parties to show cause why we should not terminate the essential air service subsidy eligibility of Kingman"

The document goes on to note that ­ at about $213 per passenger­ the government subsidy for Kingman exceeded the $200-per-passenger ceiling.

Severson said the contract also could involve flying into Las Vegas, rather than Phoenix ­ a prospect that city officials say could be good for the local market.

"On the surface, I think Las Vegas would be better than Phoenix," City Manager Steve Norwood said. "Not only would you have the opportunity to transfer (to other airports around the country), but you would also have the tourist aspect."

In the city's review of the proposals, Norwood and Severson both said a crucial aspect would be the terminal situation at Sky Harbor, (should the contract involve flying to Phoenix).

Norwood said the city continues to see a connection to Terminal 4 as important for Prescott. While Mesa Airlines flew into Terminal 4, with connections to America West (U.S. Airways), Great Lakes flies into Terminal 2, with connections to United Airlines.

Prescott officials have long contended that the change in terminals had a major effect on passenger numbers.

Proposals are due by April 23. The USDOT's request for proposals states, "Shortly afterwards, we will provide a summary of the proposals to the communities and ask them to submit their final comments." The new contract period begins on July 1.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com