Airport seeks new partnership

Yampa Valley looking to break relationship with Mesa Airlines

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Community leaders in Northwest Colorado are seeking an estrangement from Mesa Air-lines and are courting SkyWest.

Both airlines operate out of Denver International Airport as United Express, and Mesa is scheduled to fly 37-passenger turboprops to Yampa Valley Regional Airport west of Steamboat Springs six times a day. But a group of business executives and elected officials from five local governments put their names on a letter this week expressing a strong pref-erence for regional jets flown by SkyWest.

"We believe United Express has unintentionally caused people to either drive to Denver or move to other carriers," said Andy Wirth, vice president of marketing for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. "This is not our first attempt with United Express. It seems like we make this attempt every three to four years." Wirth's office negotiates contracts with airlines on behalf of the community.

In a letter to United Express Vice President Sean Donohue, community leaders said the loss of commuter jet service this winter was a problem and that the resulting reduction in inbound seats was out of step with economic growth in the region. They also expressed disappointment in what they described as inconsistent service by Mesa.

"As we look forward to summer 2006 and winter 2006-07, we are requesting consideration for an improved, more unified, United Express product for our mutual customers," the letter reads. "We are interested in upgrading from Mesa props to SkyWest regional jet service for summer and to SkyWest regional jets and additional mainline (United Airlines) jets for winter.

"We also request your immediate attention to the current unacceptable United Express service levels. This situation is compromising the economic health of our community."

The letter is signed by Ski Corp. President Chris Diamond; Tom Gray, chairman of the Moffat County Board of Com-missioners; Marty Kolonel, chairman of the Yampa Valley Airport Commission; Hayden Mayor Chuck Grobe; Sandy Evans Hall, executive director of the Steamboat Chamber Resort Association; Jim Ferree, president of the Craig City Council; Ken Brenner, president of the Steamboat City Council; Dan Ellison, chairman of the Routt County Board of Commissioners; and Steve Dawes, president of the Steamboat Springs Local Marketing District.

Courting SkyWest

Yampa Valley officials hope to send a delegation to Chicago soon to meet with Donohue. However, Wirth has not waited for a response from United to test the waters with SkyWest officials.

Mesa is providing the aircraft and crews for flights between Denver and the Yampa Valley this winter, but SkyWest was contracted by United to provide ground services for United Express flights at YVRA. That circumstance has allowed local airport officials to see how SkyWest operates and has allowed the small airline's staff to appreciate the commitment to improved air service here, Wirth said.

"We've been working the relationship hard," Wirth said. "SkyWest gets it."

SkyWest was founded in St. George, Utah, in 1972. Like Mesa, it has a mix of small jets and turboprops in its fleet. Of the 232 aircraft operated by SkyWest, 62 are 30-passenger, Brazilian-made turboprops. The airline flies out of hubs in Chicago; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Denver and Salt Lake City. It flies to 123 states and carried 13.4 million passengers in 2004.

Issues with Mesa

Ski season airline service bet-ween Denver and YVRA changed dramatically this winter, when United Airlines did not renew its contract with United Express provider Air Wisconsin. Three years ago, all of the service to Denver was flown by Air Wisconsin using small jets. Last year, United returned Mesa's turboprops to the route, but Air Wisconsin's workhorse British Aerospace jets still flew from Denver four times a day. When United announced in June that the small jets would fly elsewhere this ski season, Steamboat lost several thousand inbound seats.

United flew 40 percent of the 98,600 passengers who arrived at YVRA last winter. Ski Corp. officials persuaded Mesa to add additional turboprop flights. However, United, including its daily 737 on United mainline, now accounts for 28 percent of inbound capacity. The Steamboat airline program offset some of the losses by increasing the direct flight from Chicago on American Airlines to a 188-passenger 757.

Erratic schedules

Janet Fischer, airline program director for Ski Corp., said that during an intensely snowy December 2005, Mesa completed 93 percent of its scheduled flights.

"It might sound OK," Fisch-er said, "but more than half of the completed flights did not arrive on time."

Some flights were hours late, Fischer said.

Fischer said she was particularly concerned with two five-day periods, one in mid-December and one in January, when Mesa had unusual concentrations of canceled flights. Although other airlines were able to land their planes at YVRA, Mesa canceled 13 flights in the five-day period. The reasons given were weather, mechanical problems and unavailability of crews. During a similar period in January, 10 flights were canceled, including the daily 737. Each canceled flight made it harder to recover displaced airline passengers.

"We were having heavy weather at the time, there's no question." Fischer acknowledged."It came with a string of customer-service issues. But there were no other canceled flights (on other airlines). I can't answer why."

Baggage woes

Fischer said there were a concerning number of instances when passengers arrived without their baggage and were unable to get answers, sometimes being put on hold for 30 to 50 minutes on the airline's help line.

Wirth said he has been able to confirm other ski area destinations have had similar problems with Mesa's service.

"These are systematic issues that have plagued all of the intermountain airports," he said. "It's not unique to Steamboat."

The letter that was sent to Donohue this week points out that Routt County is investing $18 million in an airport terminal expansion and that a multimillion dollar redevelopment of the ski area base is poised to begin.

"All these investments solidify Steamboat's position as a key partner for United," the letter states. "Reliable year-round air service and professional airline customer service are critical to our future economic success as a community."

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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