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Two airlines bid for contract to offer flights out of Cortez Municipal Airport

Passengers wait to board a flight at Cortez Municipal Airport in this file photo.
Community feedback sought prior to submitting recommendation to U.S. Department of Transportation

“Don’t fall for this again,” Jim Herrick thought to himself.

Boutique Air out of the Cortez Municipal Airport was scheduled to carry Herrick and his wife on the first leg of a recent international vacation, but now he would never consider flying with the airline again, he said.

He is jaded by a series of cancellations that spurred him to spend an extra $800 in travel costs – not to mention hours of drive time to instead fly out of the Durango-La Plata County Airport 63 miles to the east – for a connection in Denver.

It’s “time to spare Boutique Air,” he told The Journal — and he may not be alone in his thinking.

Two airlines – Denver Air Connection and Southern Airways Express – are vying to sweep the runways at the Cortez Municipal Airport as Boutique Air’s six-year tenure at the airport is set to expire. The Cortez community has a chance to weigh in through the end of the month.

Two proposals

Denver Air Connection, owned by Key Lime Air, is proposing 24 weekly round-trip flights split evenly between Denver and Phoenix. The carrier is requesting a $6,410,791 subsidy for the first year of service. It is offering flights on a Fairchild Metro 23 aircraft, which is powered by a twin-turboprop engine. Denver Air is prepared to offer jet service as the community’s needs grow.

Southern Airways Express is requesting anywhere from $3,790,431 to $4,331,917 for the first year of service, depending on plane and flight options. Two options suggest 24 round-trip flights to Denver and zero to Phoenix, and the other two plan for 18 round-trip flights to Denver and six to Phoenix. It is offering flights on either a Pilatus PC-12, the single-engine plane currently used by Boutique Air, or on 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.

A project website at bit.ly/CortezAirportAirlineInput aims to engage the community with a public comment section. The community may also submit comments to Scott Faulk, DOT Essential Air Service representative at scott.faulk@dot.gov.

Boutique Air’s contract will conclude come October, but the new appointed carrier may start using the Cortez airstrip as soon as it is ready to commence service, said Cortez Airport Manager Jeremy Patton.

“It's not just an avenue for people to complain about Boutique,” Patton said. “I know there are a lot of complaints, but this is more like actually look at the proposals and understand that if we want to raise standards, then look objectively at everything.”

Boutique originally planned to submit a proposal for contract renewal, but ultimately decided not to, Patton said.

Pilot shortages, the pandemic, supply chain lags and weather have rocked the airline, but it is a trend that is playing out industrywide, Patton said.

Boutique Air’s media relations line did not respond to a request for comment by Wednesday afternoon.

A preexisting filter limited proposals, Patton said.

The airport was previously accredited with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 139 Airport Certification, which requires airport staff to be firefighter trained, he said. When Boutique was contracted, the certification was dropped, as it wasn’t required for planes with fewer than 10 seats.

For now, the airport is limited to aircraft with a maximum of nine seats, Patton said — although he plans to change that soon.

Boutique’s initial contract from 2016-18 was renewed for four years when it expired.

“They were pretty reliable service for the majority of that time,” Patton said. “Even before the pandemic, they had a few issues with delays and cancellations. But it wasn't anything like we saw during the pandemic.”

Add on pilots switching to bigger airlines – a common practice, Patton said – amid a growing flight itinerary, and cancellations compounded.

“They were expanding really fast. They were a great business model. ... But for the last two years – a little over two years – that started to degrade,” Patton said.

The airline’s overall performance ratings are dwindling, most notably in the past two months, he said.

From Nov. 15 to Jan. 15, Boutique Air earned a 32% on-time performance rating for flights from Denver to Cortez, and a 61% rating on flights from Phoenix to Cortez in the same time frame, according to data published on FlightStats.com.

Flights out of Cortez are provided by Essential Air Service funded by a federal subsidy from the U.S. Department of Transportation, allowing residents of rural areas a link to prime travel hubs. Alamosa and Pueblo join Cortez as EAS airports in Colorado.

“By default, you're going to be dealing with smaller companies,” Patton said.

Patton is optimistic about the future of the airport, and said the two candidate airlines are reliable and backed by promising references.

“My concern is just looking at all angles and making sure they actually have the aircraft that they're going to promise to get us here,” he said.

Perfect track records are practically nonexistent, especially right now, he said.

“It's similar to picking somebody to do work on your house right?” Patton said. “You go out, you try to get a few different prices, you get a few different references, you never really know until the work actually is being done.”

The airport will review feedback with local officials before submitting a recommendation to the Department of Transportation, which ultimately has the final say in deciding the carrier selection and timeline.

Boutique Air’s contract provided for 24 nonstop roundtrip flights each week – 18 to Denver International Airport and six to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – in eight- or nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 aircrafts.

The flights were provided at annual subsidy rates that increased each year, totaling $3,854,948 in the last year of service.

“I think raising standards here is very important, and getting a more reliable air service in here,” Patton said.

While single-engine, turboprops and propellers will likely be mainstays at the airport for a while, Patton envisions airport expansion and the use of jets to cater to heavier passenger traffic and more destinations.

“If we raise the bar a little bit each time, then we can get that better service in here eventually,” he said.

Cortez resident Richard Zawistowski said notice of Patton’s hire last year was “good news” and paved the way for “some fresh ideas and a new direction” at the airport.

Having spent a lot of time in Farmington, he said he believes Cortez could cater to New Mexico residents looking to broaden their travel options.

“I just think this airport has a lot of opportunity to be a lot of things to a lot of people,” he said.

Jeremy Patton, airport manager, can be reached at cortezairport@cortezco.gov.