Great Lakes debate

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Flights between Clovis and Albuquerque are up in the air.

The U.S. Department of Transportation chose to provide federally subsidized flights between Clovis and Denver under its essential air service program, despite the wishes of the Clovis City Commission, which favored flights between Clovis and Albuquerque.

Clovis residents will have more options at the Denver airport, according to a March 20 DOT report.

Great Lakes Aviation should provide 18 one-stop round trips per week to Denver beginning May 1, according to the report. The one-stop trips include the option of stopping at either Amarillo, Santa Fe or Pueblo, Colo., at Great Lakes discretion, the report reads.

The Clovis City Commission favored 12 non-stop round trips per week to Albuquerque and five one-stop round trips per week to Denver.

“It comes as an enormous surprise to city staff and to the community that these changes have been brought about,” Clovis Mayor David Lansford said.

Albuquerque flights could continue if the community and Great Lakes agree to swap a flight to Denver for a flight to Albuquerque and contact the Department of Transportation, the report reads.

Great Lakes spokeswoman Monica Taylor said it is “too early” to guarantee that swap.

“Our upper management hasn’t had a chance to discuss it with the community,” she said.

“I’m optimistic something can be worked out,” Clovis Commissioner Robert Sandoval said.

Great Lakes Aviation has provided air service to Clovis for two years with two daily round trips to Albuquerque on 19-passenger Beech 1900-D aircraft, as well as trips to Amarillo and Denver. In the first nine months of 2006, 3,216 passengers used the Clovis-Albuquerque service.

Clovis resident Bill Gaedke uses that service often — his son and daughter live in Albuquerque.

“It definitely,” he said, “would be an inconvenience (to lose the option).”

Community input is a factor in selecting federally subsidized air carriers, but the DOT eschewed Clovis’ preferred option because it believes the Denver option is better.

It “will provide Clovis passengers with online access to the extensive connecting opportunities for United Airlines and Frontier Airlines at Denver,” the report reads.

DOT remained “mindful of the community’s first choice,” the report continues, because it will authorize a flight to Albuquerque in lieu of a flight to Denver, if Great Lakes and the community want.

With a price tag of approximately $1.99 million, the option chosen by the Department of Transportation is about $465,140 cheaper than the option preferred by city commissioners.

Taylor said Great Lakes had no stake in the option DOT chose.

“Our biggest hope,” she said, “was that we would get the award (for essential air service).”

Wyoming-based Great Lakes was competing with Hawaii-based Pacific Wings Airline for the essential service contract for Clovis and Silver City.

Pacific Wings proposed offering 12 non-stop round trips from Clovis and Silver City to Albuquerque using nine-passenger, turboprop planes for a combined annual subsidy of about $1.49 million.

After city commissioners endorsed Great Lakes instead of Pacific, Pacific withdrew its bid. That ensured Great Lakes got the essential air service contract, according to the DOT report.

Pacific Wings recently won essential air service contracts in Carlsbad and Hobbs.

Great Lakes renewed contract for Clovis and Silver City expires April 30, 2009.

The essential air service program was created by Congress to ensure rural communities were served by certified aircraft. It provides flights to about 140 communities.