Denver Air Connection could be the new airline touching down at the Cortez Municipal Airport.
That’s what Montezuma County and city of Cortez officials are hoping for, at least.
On Dec. 20, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals from airlines interested in providing Essential Air Service out of Cortez.
Flights out of Cortez are facilitated by EAS service funded by a federal subsidy from the DOT, allowing residents of rural areas a link to prime travel hubs.
Cortez is served by Boutique Air, but the airline’s service has fallen short of expectations and has sparked early contract shifts in Boutique Air airports.
Enter Denver Air Connection and Southern Airways Express – the two finalists that submitted proposals to serve Cortez after contender Air Charter Express was disqualified.
Denver Air has a 25 years’ experience in the Rockies.
Cortez Municipal Airport Manager Jeremy Patton favors Denver Air.
The carrier is endowed with the Federal Aviation Administration Part 135 cargo commuter certificate and Part 121 airline transport certificate, which are usually issued separately, Patton told The Journal.
“Their repertoire and credibility with the FAA means a lot,” Patton said.
The airline has experienced pilots, Patton said, and can carry more passengers and cargo than Southern Airways Express – nine passengers vs. eight.
– Denver Air Connection, owned by Key Lime Air, proposes 24 weekly round-trip flights split by Denver and Phoenix. The carrier requests a $6.4 million subsidy for its first year. It flies the Fairchild Metro 23 aircraft, powered by a twin-turboprop engine. Denver Air would offer jet service if needed.
– Southern Airways Express requests $3.8 million to $4.3 million for its first year, depending on plane and flight options. Two options suggest 24 round-trip flights to Denver and none to Phoenix, and the other two plan 18 round-trip flights to Denver and six to Phoenix. It flies the Pilatus PC-12, the single-engine plane used by Boutique Air, or a Beechcraft King Air 2000 aircraft, which is powered by a twin-turboprop engine.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shoulders the cost of the subsidies.
Two pilots – not one — fly Denver Air planes for greater safety, Patton said.
Flights on Southern Air, a younger company, resemble Boutique Air’s, he said.
“Our goal is to improve service here with more seating capacity and better performing aircraft,” Patton said. “That’s not to say anything bad about what they (Boutique) use, it just doesn't work as well in this region.”
Patton suspects that the DOT, which shoulders EAS costs, could select Southern Air because of the lower subsidy.
However, Patton said, the DOT typically accepts community recommendations.
As soon as an airline is ready to fly, Boutique can end its Cortez service – as early as March or April, months before its six-year tenure expires in October.
“We may just have to deal with it for two years – it’s a two-year minimum contract,” Patton said. “And we can push back a little bit on it.”
He attributed airline costs to rising fuel prices and “political and economic influences.”
And he is proposing that Denver Air be contracted for four years instead of two, in part to delay a new six-month selection process in 18 months. By that time, subsidy requests likely would be higher, Patton said.
DOT could make a decision within a few weeks, he said.
Community feedback was gauged through Monday with a project website at bit.ly/CortezAirportAirlineInput.
Jon Coleman, director of business development and pilot for Denver Air, weighed in.
“For 25 years, we’ve been flying the Rockies in all kinds of weather, and a tremendous amount of our pilot experience comes from single pilot operations in the Rockies,” he said.
Denver Air has a higher reliability rating than any other airline in the world, he said. The airline has an on-time reliability rating of 97%, and an even higher overall reliability rate.
“We fly 99% of the flights that we say we're going to fly – and we fly a lot,” Coleman said.
”We believe that Cortez is a good fit for Denver Air, and Denver air is a good fit for Cortez,” he said.
Keith Sisson, chief marketing officer for Southern Airways Express, also emphasized reliability.
“I think certainly in the last four or five years, we’ve proven to be the most reliable commuter airline in all of America. We have some communities that haven’t had a single cancellation in almost a year. ... So when the plane is scheduled to take off, it takes off,” he said.
In 2021, the airline had monthly controllable completion rates between 97% and 100%. On-time performance ratings varied from 70% to nearly 90%. Lower ratings are attributed to delays at the Washington Dulles Airport — an issue that has since been resolved, Sisson said.
Southern Airways has interline agreements with United Airways, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Denver Air also has an interline agreement with United Airways.
Sisson promised seamless baggage transportation to a destination and free accommodation from a connecting airline in the event of an irregular operation, like a weather delay.
The partnerships offer the flexibility of selecting an outbound connection with one partner airline and returning with another.
“It really opens up a lot of different connecting opportunities for the for the passengers,” he said.
Sisson clarified that Southern Airways would fly either Pilatus PC-12 or King Air planes from the start of its tenure in Cortez.
There has been concern that Southern’s nonpressurized Cessna Caravans, which can’t fly commercially higher than 10,000 feet, would fly out of Cortez.
However, these planes wouldn’t be used in Cortez, Sisson said.
Southern plans to fly its first PC-12s by May 1, pending approval from the FAA.
“It’s an aircraft that our our leadership is familiar with, even though it hasn't been in our fleet in a couple of years ... it should be very seamless to get that aircraft back into the fleet,” he said.
Ultimately, the aircraft and schedule is up to DOT, he said.
The airline initially flew the Caravan in Chadron, Nebraska, to meet the town’s demand for immediate service in June, Sisson said. Now, the airport is completing its transition to King Air fleet.
This likely wouldn’t be the case in Cortez, though, he said.
“If they (Cortez) would like for us to start early, we certainly think we would have the ability to, but we would rely on the regulators to dictate the schedule to us,” he said.
County officials toured a Denver Air plane, but Southern Air didn’t send one to Cortez, Patton said.
Southern Air committed to $25,000 in yearly advertising costs until enplanement goals were achieved. Denver Air pledged $20,000.
Both expressed confidence in Denver Air’s ability to provide safe, reliable and convenient service while fitting into the airport’s goals of increasing local air travel.
Patton is working to reinstate the FAA’s Part 139 Airport Certification, which would qualify the airport for additional funding and aircraft with 10 or more seats.
If that happened, Patton said, 30-seat passenger jets could fly out of Cortez in about six months.
Several Cortez organizations provided endorsement with letters of their own, including the Cortez Retail Enhancement Association, Mesa Verde Country and the Chamber of Commerce.
Denver Air could help expand the county’s tourism sector, Kelly Kirkpatrick, Mesa Verde Country’s director of tourism, said in an email.
“I believe it is imperative that in order to stay competitive with other destinations we need to offer an air market that fits our future tourism demands. The tourism industry has injected $851 million into our economy over the past 10 years alone, and most of that has been exclusively through a drive market,” she said. “Our proximity to one of the most unique national parks in the system, we’ve been unable thus far to offer any alternative to visiting other than by vehicle.”
Kirkpatrick isn’t alone.
"We see the prospect of expansion and improved consistency of air service as a real win for the local business community. Increasing tourism as well as travel for meetings and events has a direct impact on revenues for Cortez,“ Andrea J Dillon, Cortez Retail Enhancement Association’s executive director, said in an email. ”Also, people considering moving to our area often assess the ease of travel in and out of Cortez when making a decision about moving here. So enhancing the airport and its offerings may also create more potential new residents, which helps our community grow and diversify."