The Cortez City Council on Tuesday voted to support Boutique Air’s bid for essential air service to the Cortez Municipal Airport.
The airport’s current contract for essential air service expires on June 30 with Great Lakes Airlines, with whom the airport has maintained a relationship for many years, said Airport Manager Russ Machen.
The Boutique Air base bid, for a two-year contract, includes a provision for three daily round-trip flights to Denver. A second Boutique Air bid would provide one daily round-trip flight to Phoenix in addition to those Denver flights.
The council voted unanimously to authorize Mayor Karen Sheek to sign a letter recommending Boutique Air’s bid for three Denver flights and one Phoenix flight to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will award the bid.
The Department of Transportation could disregard the council’s recommendation and award the bid to Great Lakes Airlines, though, Machen said. The agency also could select a different configuration of destinations, so there’s no guarantee the Cortez airport will see a Phoenix flight, he said.
Great Lakes Airlines has been the only airline to bid for service to Cortez, Machen said. In the past 25 years, only one other airline has submitted a bid, he said.
A 2014 federal law increased the number of hours pilots needed for certification from 500 to 1,500. That law made recruiting pilots more difficult for Great Lakes Airlines, which forced them to cut service and cancel flights at the Cortez airport, Machen said.
“We haven’t been unhappy with Great Lakes until the last few years,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Ty Keel said Great Lakes Airlines hasn’t delivered on its promises, including increasing its roster of pilots.
Sheek said the airport has lost credibility with Great Lakes’ inconsistent service.
“From the city’s perspective, we can’t afford to keep taking a risk (with Great Lakes),” she said.
Councilman Orly Lucero said choosing a new air service provider might prevent Cortez residents from traveling to Durango for flights instead of flying locally.
“We need to get trust back from the community,” he said.
Boutique Air is a relative newcomer to commercial air service, having been in the industry for about two years, Machen said. It uses eight- or nine-seat planes that are more than 3 tons lighter than planes Great Lakes would use, Machen said, and are less expensive to operate. The fiscal impact to the Cortez airport with a Boutique Air contract would be an annual loss of just under $5,000, compared with annual losses of more than $10,000 if the Department of Transportation awarded Great Lakes Airlines the bid, Machen said.
City Manager Shane Hale pointed out that the contract was only for two years. If Great Lakes came back in two years with a top bid, there’s a chance the city could switch back, he said. In March, the airline began offering a midday flight to Denver Sunday through Friday.
Essential Air Service is a subsidized program of the federal government that seeks to guarantee small communities commercial airline service. The program’s 2014 budget was $241 million.