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Thu, Aug. 22

Mesa Air to cease service by May 31

The Daily Courier/Les Stukenberg<br>
Mesa Air is closing up shop as of May 31.

The Daily Courier/Les Stukenberg<br> Mesa Air is closing up shop as of May 31.

PRESCOTT - The outlook is worsening in Prescott's effort to retain commercial airline service to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

City officials learned Wednesday morning that Mesa Air Group plans to close down its Air Midwest subsidiary - a move that could wipe out by May 31 the Phoenix and Las Vegas flights that the airline currently provides through a federal subsidy contract.

On Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley confirmed that his department also had received word that morning that Mesa was planning to cease service in Prescott at the end of May.

The latest news is even more drastic than the word the city received this past week that Mesa planned to terminate local commercial flight service on Aug. 4.

The new development came as a surprise to city officials, who just the day before had expected Mesa

to stay on board long enough to allow the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the subsidy contract, to find a replacement service.

At Tuesday's Prescott City Council meeting, City Manager Steve Norwood reminded the community that the federal department has the final say in when Mesa could pull out of Prescott, noting, "It's real important to remember that Mesa just cannot up and leave."

But with the latest announcement from Mesa, local officials acknowledge that they no longer are dealing with just a terminated contract.

"This changes the picture a little bit," airport manager Ben Vardiman said Wednesday morning of the announcement of a subsidiary closure.

Norwood agreed. "I don't think there's a whole lot of options," he said Wednesday, pointing out that if the subsidiary goes out of business, the U.S. Department of Transportation likely would not be able to require it to stay on until a replacement is on board.

While Mosley said his department could not guarantee that the air service would continue uninterrupted after Mesa's

May 31 pull-out, he said the U.S. Department of Transportation would "move as quickly as possible to select a replacement carrier for the communities that they are ceasing service at."

Already this past Monday, the federal department had released a request for proposals to try to find other airlines interested in the Essential Air Service subsidy contract for the Prescott Airport. The deadline for submission of proposals is June 2.

Noting that federal officials do not know what sort of response the RFP would generate, Mosley said he was uncertain when a new carrier would be on board. But he added: "Any hiatus (in service) would be as short as possible."

Mesa, which had provided the commercial air service in Prescott for years, left the market from 2005 to 2007, when Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines won the federal Essential Air Service subsidy contract to provide the service.

City officials, who had opposed the switch to Great Lakes, successfully lobbied the U.S. Department of Transportation in early 2007 to award the new two-year contract to Mesa, and the airline returned to Prescott in October 2007.

Since then, passenger numbers have fluctuated somewhat. Vardiman reported that 662 passengers used the airline in its first month back at the Prescott Airport in October, and the total rose to 715 in November. In December the total stood at 628.

Then in January, Vardiman said the airport experienced the "typical downward (winter) lull," with monthly numbers dropping to the 400-to-500 range. In April, the passengers totaled 427.

A representative from Mesa Air Group was unavailable for comment Wednesday, although this past week, the company attributed the pending service termination to soaring fuel prices.

Meanwhile, the city continues to move forward with its plans to bring Horizon Air to the Prescott Airport to provide non-stop flights to Los Angeles. So far, Norwood said, Horizon officials remain positive about the September move into the Prescott market.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com

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