Business feature: City could get new air service carrier

Mesa airlines offers 18 roundtrips a week from Clovis to Albuquerque. (CNJ file photo)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Air service at the Clovis Municipal Airport may change hands soon if the city’s endorsement of a new carrier is upheld at the federal level.

The civl aviation board voted Nov. 1 to endorse Great Lakes Airlines as the new carrier in Clovis, and the city wrote a letter of sponsorship to the essential air service division of the Department of Transportation petitioning for a service change. The essential air service division will now decide whether or not to uphold that request and remove the incumbent carrier, Mesa Air Group.

Board members and company officials expect to have the final decision before Christmas.

“Until this year no other airline has wanted to compete with Mesa. With the contract coming up, Great Lakes just bid against them,” said Donnie Lewellen, chairperson of the civil aviation board. “As a board, we thought Great Lakes was going to offer us better service than we’ve been getting.”

The final decision as to whether the service will change is up to the Department of Transportation, but community input like that given by the city of Clovis is usually what the board bases its decision on, said Mickey Bowman, director of planning with Mesa Air Group.

“We were very surprised by the move, frankly. We’ve had a long history of service in Clovis,” Bowman said. “The input of the community weighs very heavily on their decision process. Given the fact that the advisory council recommended Great Lakes, it will weigh very heavily on the … decision.”

Chuck Howell, chief executive officer of Great Lakes Airlines, said he is pleased with the recommendation by the civil aviation board and city.

“We are obviously very excited to always get new cities,” said Howell, who has held his position at Great Lakes for two years. “We felt like we did a good job of presenting our case and why we were a better choice for the community.”

The essential air service program was set up after the airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s as a way to guarantee that smaller communities would retain a minimal level of air service, according to the Department of Transportation Web site.

Lewellen said any carrier operating in Clovis is granted federal funds under the essential air service program as a way to promote air travel in markets that may not be profitable for airlines.

Board members said their decision to endorse Great Lakes was based on what they perceived as a willingness by the company to participate in community marketing and a to develop new schedules.

“Part of our concern with Mesa has been their schedules,” Lewellen said. “Their schedule was not very conducive to trying to conduct business between (Clovis and Albuquerque). People were arriving too late into Albuquerque and Clovis to make it good for the traveling businessman.”

Airport Director Steve Summers said one of Great Lakes’ proposals provides for an early-morning flight to Albuquerque, a service Clovis hasn’t seen in eight years. If Great Lakes is granted the contract he said he will push for this new schedule.

Responding to the allegation that Mesa doesn’t spend enough marketing dollars, Bowman said his company markets mostly at the national level, making flights available through Internet travel sites. He said Mesa will reach $1 billion in revenue in 2005, and if the opportunity presents itself in the future, it would gladly come back to service the area.

“We don’t easily put behind us a 20-year history of service in a community, where we felt we were actually part of the community,” he said. “This is very disappointing, obviously.”
Howell said of the 31 cities Great Lakes services, 21 of those are essential air service cities. He said his company always tries to understand the needs of the smaller communities and match schedules and fares accordingly.

“Call any one of the 31 cities we currently serve and ask any of the airport managers or business leaders, ‘What do you know about Great Lakes?’ If you don’t get an over-glowing report, we’d be very surprised,” he said. “We do one thing, and we do it well.”

Summers said the Department of Transportation may make a decision in the next 10 days, but any changes in service probably would not begin until the new year.