Flights from Pueblo to DIA on hold until new carrier signs

BY DENNIS DARROW THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN Published: May 27, 2015; Last modified: May 27, 2015 10:52AM Pueblo will temporarily lose passenger air service to Denver starting next week while waiting for a successor to be named to current operator SkyWest Airlines. The last SkyWest/United Express flights between Pueblo Memorial Airport and Denver International Airport will take place June 3, city aviation director Mark Lovin said Tuesday. The service interruption could last a month or more, Lovin said. Passengers who booked flights after June 3 have been offered optional flights out of the Colorado Springs Airport or refunds, he said. The service disruption comes as St. George, Utah­based SkyWest follows through on its announced plan to opt out of the second year of its federal Essential Air Services contract to operate the twice­ daily flights.

Great Lakes Airlines, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., is the lone qualifying carrier that put in a bid to succeed SkyWest but a contract has not been signed by Great Lakes and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Lovin said. Great Lakes was the operator of the Pueblo­to­Denver route prior to SkyWest’s selection last year. “We’ve not yet seen the order of when Great Lakes is to begin service,” Lovin said. “There will be a (service) disruption . . . possibly through at least the month of June, until Great Lakes gets up and going.” An email message left with Great Lakes on Tuesday did not draw any immediate response. Its bid calls for serving the route with twice daily flights using 30­passenger turboprop planes. The U.S. Department of Transportation oversees the Essential Air Services program. The program pays airlines subsidies to operate flights linking small and rural airports with major airports. For the first time, the federal agency is asking Pueblo to pay a subsidy to help fund the flight service, citing new cost­sharing rules that allow such a request if a participating airport is within 40 miles of a small hub airport.

Pueblo Memorial Airport is about 40 miles from the Colorado Springs Airport. Under a revised offer accepted by the federal government, the city would cover up to 5 percent, or $88,000, of the $1.76 million a year the Essential Air Services program would pay Great Lakes to operate the service. The amount is up from $44,000 the city previously offered. Initially, Pueblo city leaders had sought a waiver but federal officials rejected that request, city officials said. Any final subsidy proposal would come before Pueblo City Council for a review and vote. It is the second straight year the Pueblo­to­Denver flights have been hit by a major service disruption. For a two­month period in early 2014, Great Lakes suspended the flights. It cited newly adopted federal pilot training and work regulations that disrupted large numbers of regional air carriers. SkyWest took over the service starting in April 2014.

The Pueblo ­to ­Denver flights have seen passenger counts shrink in recent years as more travelers opt to use Colorado Springs Airport and DIA. Last year, passenger counts averaged around 500 per month, about 40 percent short of the city’s goal of about 833 passengers per month. Pueblo leaders say they are confident passenger counts will rebound if the service is stabilized and flights are offered at desirable times for area travelers. Also, they say the flights are important to the area’s economic development efforts.

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