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Thu, Aug. 22

City welcomes return of Mesa Air Group

Phoenix passengers depart before Mesa Airlines’ inaugural flight from Prescott to Las Vegas leaves Love Field Monday morning.

Phoenix passengers depart before Mesa Airlines’ inaugural flight from Prescott to Las Vegas leaves Love Field Monday morning.

The Daily Courier

PRESCOTT - Mesa Air Group's first flight out of Prescott Monday morning was at full capacity, and local officials took that as renewed evidence the return of the airline would be good for the Prescott Municipal Airport.

About 40 local officials and residents gathered at the airport terminal Monday morning to kick off Mesa's first day of service in Prescott after a two-year absence.

Earlier that morning, Mesa's 7:30 a.m. flight to Phoenix left with all of its 19 seats filled with passengers.

The tone of comments by Airport Manager Ben Vardiman, Mayor Rowle Simmons and Chamber of Commerce President Doug Bristol was uniformly enthusiastic for the airline change.

"We're glad to welcome Mesa back with open arms," Simmons said during the kick-off event.

Simmons and other speakers referred to putting behind them the past two years, during which passenger numbers plummeted under Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines' tenure as Prescott's commercial air service provider.

"We've really had a long two years," Simmons said.

In 2005, Great Lakes won the federal Essential Air Service subsidy contract to provide commercial service to Prescott, unseating Mesa, which had provided the service for years.

City officials opposed the change, maintaining that Mesa - at more than 800 passengers per month - was well on its way to reaching the 1,000-passenger-per-month level which would make the city eligible for federal financial assistance with a new airport terminal.

Great Lakes' numbers never approached that level. Information from the airport showed that the airline attracted 224 paying passengers this past July - the last month for which totals were available.

Local officials attributed the drop in passenger numbers to Great Lakes' use of Terminal 2 at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. Mesa, on the other hand, has access to Terminal 4, which appears to appeal to more local passengers.

Along with daily flights to and from Phoenix, Mesa is introducing a new feature - a regular flight between Prescott and Las Vegas. In fact, Monday's kick-off event coincided with the first Prescott-to-Las Vegas flight at 10:55 a.m.

Although the first Vegas flight attracted just five passengers - well below the 19-passenger capacity - airport officials noted that the new connection would require some promotion to make local residents aware that it exists.

Prescott Station Manager Kathy Defreitas reported that interest is high for Mesa's service. "People are calling all the time," she said Monday.

Two local travel agents from AAA Arizona who attended the kick-off event agreed that Mesa's return was generating interest among local travelers.

Connie Manning, manager of branch office operations for AAA, said passengers like the fact that they will no longer have to change terminals with their luggage to get to Terminal 4 to board US Airways and Southwest flights.

Travel Agent Melissa Brown agreed, noting that Mesa "is much more passenger-friendly."

Even so, the change in the midday flight was not good news for everyone. As Prescott resident Dave Bonaker waited for the Las Vegas flight Monday morning, he pointed out that the routing through Las Vegas would add time to the flight he was accustomed to taking on Great Lakes.

"For business, this isn't the best," Bonaker, who was on his way to San Diego, said of the change. "It's an hour longer each way."

Airport officials acknowledged that the changes would not satisfy everyone. But Jeffrey Hartz, director of planning for Mesa, pointed out the airline could opt to add flights in the future, if the ridership demands it.

"Hopefully, we'll continue to improve air service here in Prescott," he told the crowd. Afterward, he added, "Obviously, the next thing we'd want to do is add more flights."

If passenger numbers continue to rise, he said, the airline could move to larger aircraft. The next level would involve the 37-passenger Dash Eight aircraft, which would come with a lavatory and flight attendant, Hartz said.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com

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