Prescott Airport deals with summer heat, high elevation
Director: Runway extension is the ultimate fix
It’s hot and it’s high: For many Prescott residents, those conditions make for a pleasant high-desert summer.
But it turns out that the combination of Prescott’s high elevation and relatively warm summer temperatures present some challenges for the Prescott Regional Airport (PRC).
To adapt to the summertime heat, the airport’s commercial airline carrier, United Express (operated by SkyWest Airlines), has adjusted its schedule to fly in the cooler morning or evening hours (7:15 a.m. to Denver, and 8:05 p.m. to Los Angeles).
That move has not come without challenges of its own, however — especially in combination with Denver’s severe summer storms in June.
The difficulties have been felt by passengers in recent weeks, as a number of flights were delayed, mostly for weather-related reasons.
HOT AND HIGH AIRPORT
Airport Director Robin Sobotta says a variety of factors — including elevation, temperatures and humidity — all contribute to the “density altitude” at the local airport.
In aviation terms, Prescott’s weather and altitude put PRC in the category of “hot and high” airports.
As the temperatures and altitude increase, air density decreases, according to the AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) website. That, in turn, can cause reduced lift as the aircraft climbs.
Prescott, known as a mile-high city, has an elevation in the 5,200- to 5,300-feet range. At the airport, the elevation is 5,045 feet, according to the AirNav.com website.
Coupled with the high elevation are average high temperatures in June, July and August in the 86- to 89-degree range.
Prescott isn’t alone in its “high and hot” category. Sobotta said Pueblo, Colorado — at an elevation of 4,692 feet, and an average high temperature of 91 degrees in July — faces similar challenges.
NEED FOR LONGER RUNWAY
While the short-term response for SkyWest has been to reschedule for the summer, Sobotta said the longer-term answer will be lengthening the airport’s runway.
That project is in the planning stages, but it is still four to five years away, Sobotta said.
In addition, she said, “It is not an inexpensive project.”
Lengthening the runway by 2,400 to 3,300 feet from its current 7,619-foot length could cost upwards of $40 million — 95% of which could be covered by a Federal Aviation Administration grant.
A longer runway would help commercial aircraft to deal with the summer heat.
“We wouldn’t have had to move to evening time slots (this summer) had we had the additional runway length,” Sobotta said.
Without the summer schedule change, the airline likely would have had to significantly reduce its passenger loads to accommodate the density altitude issue, Sobotta said.
“We really appreciated the thoughtful efforts of SkyWest to provide the maximum number of seats to PRC travelers, particularly in light of our remarkably high passenger loads,” she said.
While accolades had been the norm for the airport since the start of the SkyWest/United Express flights in August 2018, weather-related delays have produced recent customer complaints.
Prescott Community Outreach Manager John Heiney said the city has received complaints from fewer than five customers about the on-time rate. In addition, he said, the airport has fielded a number of customer questions.
‘STRONG OVERALL PERFORMANCE’
Marissa Snow, spokesperson for SkyWest Airlines, said the airline “is definitely committed to being on time.”
And overall, she said, “SkyWest’s performance in Prescott has been strong; we have operated nearly 70% of our departures on time year-to-date 2019.”
Still, Snow acknowledged that Denver’s June weather has caused some issues. “This summer’s weather systems (in Denver) have affected Prescott’s service,” she said.
Snow pointed out that the Denver area recently experienced severe weather systems, which caused delays in evening flights to Prescott. That, in turn, caused a conflict with federal and airline requirements that the flight crew must have a 10-hour rest before flying again. In several instances, that led to delays in the next morning’s flights from Prescott to Denver.
Although the number of June flight delays was not available from SkyWest, Sobotta said she was shown statistics for the first six months of 2019 that indicated that June experienced three times more delays than January.
Snow said SkyWest’s operations team is looking into options to deal with the issue.
Among the possible changes is an adjustment in scheduling for the flight crew.
“The airline has assured me that implementing crew changes should improve reliability,” Sobotta said, noting that the changes are expected to start in August.
Another possibility is a switch to a larger aircraft — possibly an Embraer 170 or 175.
SkyWest Airlines/United Express, has been Prescott’s commercial airline carrier under the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy since late-August 2018.
Sobotta said the next round of EAS proposals will take place in February 2020. After the bidding process and a final decision by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a new contract will begin Sept. 1, 2020.
With the addition of the SkyWest/United Express daily flights to Denver and Los Angeles, the Prescott Regional Airport exceeded the 10,000-passenger (enplanement) mark in 2018 for the first time in years. Airport officials say 2019 is on track to exceed 25,000 boarding passengers.