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1:12 PM Mon, Nov. 19th

Great Lakes Airlines plans flight changes; Denver connection will sunset, again

PRESCOTT - The Denver flight connection that made a brief return to the Prescott Airport this past summer will go away again, effective Dec. 2.

Great Lakes Airlines plans to eliminate its connection between Prescott and Denver next month, and replace it with a twice-weekly flight to Phoenix, according to Station Manager Kathy DeFreitas.

Great Lakes, which provides Prescott's commercial air service through the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy program, had revived the Prescott-to-Denver connection on Aug. 1, 2015, after discontinuing the connection previously in February 2014.

While noting that the Prescott-to-Denver connection had not been doing particularly well since its August return, DeFreitas said an ongoing pilot shortage was the main reason for the elimination.

"We're still struggling with sufficient crew members," she said. "It's a matter of placement and hours."

In place of the Denver flight, Great Lakes plans to add a Monday and Thursday flight to Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport. DeFreitas said the flight would leave Phoenix for Prescott at 11:30 a.m., and would then depart the Prescott Airport for the 30-minute flight to Phoenix at 12:17 p.m.

The flights will arrive at a secure gate at Sky Harbor's Terminal 2, where passengers would be able to connect to United Airlines flights, DeFreitas said, adding that one-way fares will start at about $67.

Meanwhile, Great Lakes continues to offer its daily flights between Prescott and the Los Angeles International Airport - a connection that DeFreitas said is doing well, and is the airline's "big focus."

Prescott Airport Manager John Cox said the elimination of the Denver route is a loss for the airport, because the flight broadened the options for passenger connections.

"It is the most convenient east-bound route," Cox said of the Prescott-to-Denver flight. "And Denver's a hub, so you can go anywhere you want from there."

Cox said he learned of the coming change when he reviewed reports from Great Lakes about expected pre-canceled flights. He followed up with Great Lakes officials, and learned about the anticipated elimination of the Denver flight.

"It's a business decision for Great Lakes," Cox said. "They're continuing to have struggles with pilot shortages."

He explained that the pilot shortage stems from recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule changes requiring pilots to have logged at least 1,500 hours of flight time - up from a minimum of about 300 hours.

The new requirements, which went into effect in 2013 "really had a significant negative impact on regional airlines," Cox said.

The pilot shortage reportedly has contributed to the number of canceled flights that Great Lakes has experienced in recent years.

Although Cox pointed out that the airline's cancellation rate has been gradually improving, back in January 2014, the city reported that the airline had canceled 58 out of 97 total scheduled flights that month.

By June 2015, figures from the airport showed that Great Lakes had operated 71 out of its 93 scheduled departing flights, and 69 out of 92 arriving flights.

Over the past four months, Cox said the canceled flights have dropped to 12 in September, and eight in October.

Still, Great Lakes' passenger numbers are also down significantly.

Prescott Economic Initiatives Director Jeff Burt said the most recent "enplanement" numbers are projected to stand at about 3,500 in 2015. That is down from about 5,000 passengers in December 2014.

The total also falls far short of the 10,000 annual passengers that the city has long used as a goal.

A September 2015 national EAS analysis prepared for members and committees of the U.S. Congress reported that the "per-passenger subsidy" at the Prescott Airport averages about $344. (Source: the U.S. Department of Transportation.) That is in the mid-range of the EAS per-passenger subsidy costs nationally, which run from as low as $10 in Joplin, Missouri, to as high as $977 in Chadron, Nebraska, according to the congressional report.

Looking at the big picture, however, Burt maintains that the flight changes and dropping numbers would have little direct effect on the city's ongoing plans to build a new airport terminal.

"The terminal is really a long-term issue," Burt said Tuesday, Nov. 17. "It's about how we do over the next 15 to 20 years. It's not dependent on a single flight."

Although noting that, "Of course, we'd like to have more," Burt said the elimination of the Denver flight is a "near-term hurdle or bump."

A recent strategic plan by an ad hoc Airport Area Steering Group recommended replacing the antiquated airport terminal as one of a number of steps aimed at developing the Prescott Airport as a commercial airport exceeding 10,000 annual passengers.

Then, on Oct. 27, the Prescott City Council chose a site for the new terminal, near the existing terminal. At that time, city officials said the $5.9 million terminal project would likely be years in the future, and would rely largely on the availability of federal grant money.

Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2034, or 928-642-0951.