By Jean Verlich: CNJ News Editor
Two months and another round of bids — including enhanced service by one competitor — hasn’t changed the minds of the Clovis Civil Aviation Board.
The City Commission subcommittee recommended in a 4-1 vote Monday that Great Lakes Aviation be awarded a federal contract to provide local air service.
The lone dissenter was the board’s chairman, Roger Hatcher, who said he favored New Mexico Airlines for economic reasons.
“My decision was based more on economics than anything else,” Hatcher said.
“Their decision was based on the type of aircraft,” he explained of the board’s action.
Great Lakes flies 19-passenger Beech 1900D twin-engine pressurized planes while Hawaii-based Pacific Wings — which has rebranded its operation in New Mexico to New Mexico Airlines — flies nine-passenger Cessna Caravan turboprops.
Commissioners will vote at their regular meeting Thursday on their recommendation to the U.S. Department of Transportation whether to stay with Great Lakes or select New Mexico Airlines.
Great Lakes has provided the city’s air service for two years.
In March, the Department of Transportation’s decision to award the contract to Great Lakes was rescinded because the flights were to Denver. City and state officials said Clovis needs air service to Albuquerque, and new proposals were solicited.
Great Lakes’ proposal seeks an annual subsidy of $2.36 million for 12 nonstop round trips weekly between Albuquerque and Clovis and Silver City, according to Department of Transportation documents.
New Mexico Airlines’ $1.95 million bid also proposes service between Clovis and Lubbock and an extension to Santa Fe from Albuquerque in addition to flying between Silver City and El Paso.
For New Mexico Airlines to receive the contract, the city must send the Department of Transportation a letter waiving its right to essential air service with pressurized aircraft with 15 or more passenger seats, which governing statutes require.
City Commissioner Lunell Winton represents the commission on the aviation board. She said she voted for Great Lakes because of safety concerns.
“I haven’t changed my stance from the last time,” she said. “My big concern is a safety issue.”
Acknowledging that New Mexico Airlines has said it will offer lower airfares than Great Lakes, she said, “Cheaper is not always better.”
“We would be better served in the community by Great Lakes.”
New Mexico Airlines President Greg Kahlstorf and his partner, CEO Frank Ford, have been in Clovis for the last two weeks trying to garner support. They flew in a new Cessna Caravan purchased for the essential air service to begin in Carlsbad and Hobbs July 1. They have been offering free rides, which he said some city commissioners and Mayor David Lansford have taken.
“This is not unexpected given what happened the last time,” Kahlstorf said of the aviation board’s decision.
Kahlstorf said his airline’s offering “safe, affordable, comfortable air travel will benefit not only Clovis but the state.”
According to Kahlstorf, single-engine turboprops like the Cessna Caravan have “over 8 million accumulated hours of operation without a single engine-related fatality.”
Kahlstorf doesn’t plan to stop his campaign.
Kahlstorf said he has collected more than 250 letters of support from people in the community.
He called the board’s decision remarkable in light of the fact that 250 letters of support were received from Clovis residents and that Great Lakes did not even bother to make a presentation.
Monica Taylor, Great Lakes director of sales and marketing, said, “Of course we are excited to be chosen.”
“This time … we know that the communities would not consider any other hub other than Albuquerque, which is what DOT had chosen the last time.”
Taylor estimated the airline serves about 200 passengers here in a month.
“That’s the difference behind essential air service: to pay the difference between the revenue and operating cost,” she said.
Kahlstorf said he would anticipate more than 10,000 passengers a year, which could generate additional federal funding for the Clovis Municipal Airport.