By Kevin Wilson
CNJ STAFF WRITER
After nearly nine years, Great Lakes Airlines is breaking up with Clovis and its municipal airport.
The airline filed a termination notice Tuesday to end its federally-subsidized flights between Clovis and Denver International Airport, with a stop at Santa Fe.
Under terms of Essential Air Service, Great Lakes is required to provide service to Clovis until a new carrier is in place. Airport Director Gene Bieker said the Department of Transportation plans to put Clovis passenger service out to bid next week, and it’s assumed most bids won’t come in until the conclusion of the holiday season.
The termination will be discussed in a special Civil Aviation Board meeting 5:15 p.m. Tuesday at the airport, where members will presumably work again towards service to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport — something even Great Lakes admits would be better for Clovis.
“We’d like to see an eastbound flight,” said City Commissioner and aviation board member Chris Bryant. “If we ever get that chance, I think whoever picked up that route would find out it’s beneficial to the airlines. I think the base would use it quite a bit more and the community would use it.”
The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based airline first worked with Clovis in April 2005 with flights to and from Albuquerque Sunport, and operated under that agreement until it decided to move operations to Denver last year.
There are less than four passengers per flight on the two daily one-stop flights, one of a few issues noted by Great Lakes Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Michael Matthews in the termination notice. He added that Great Lakes’ decision to stop in Santa Fe to allow for security screening and provide an opportunity to gain additional passengers to and from Denver has contributed to an underperforming product.
Bieker said the termination notice wasn’t shocking.
“Great Lakes had called and said they were looking at the numbers because they were so low,” Bieker said. “To me, that’s usually an indication that something is coming.”
Bieker didn’t have exact passenger numbers Thursday, but said passenger increases were around 7 to 10 percent over the last few months. That moved Clovis from around 3.1 passengers per flight to 3.5 passengers per flight, and, “Great Lakes would like to see 40 to 50 percent (increases).”
Great Lakes provides EAS service to Silver City using a hub in Phoenix, but doesn’t believe Clovis customers are interested in that option.
“It has become clear that it is in the community’s and the carrier’s mutual best interest for the DOT to solicit new requests for proposals to provide Essential Air Service at Clovis,” Matthews wrote. “Great Lakes shares the belief of the community that air service to the Dallas/Fort Worth hub would most likely provide the best air service opportunity for the Clovis community. Great Lakes does not operate a Dallas/Fort Worth hub. Therefore, Great Lakes believes that a request for proposals, emphasizing service to the Dallas/Fort Worth hub, should be solicited to facilitate the desires of the community.”
Right now, Bieker said, that is easier said than done.
“Dallas is the community’s preference, from everything I’ve got,” Bieker said. “The problem is that DOT does the bid, and the way EAS reads (service is) to a hub. Amarillo, Albuquerque and Denver are hubs. Who knows what these airlines will come in with if they decide to bid?”
Bieker does not think Clovis has the financial ability to pass up the federally-subsidized program, and will likely need to show better numbers with a new carrier before a carrier takes on Clovis-Dallas service.
“You’ve got a major airport that costs airlines a lot of money to get a gate” Bieker said. Economically, would it be worth their while to pay whatever it is per gate (for Clovis)?”
Bryant said community members weren’t happy when flights to Albuquerque were discontinued. He doesn’t think a return to Albuquerque is preferable to Dallas service, but didn’t feel it would be a step backward if Clovis received service again to Albuquerque.
“It may be something that would work,” Bryant said. “It’s hard to say at this point. First off, we’ve got to see what carriers offer.”