Time flies in the not-so-friendly skies

Mesa CEO angry over assertions about on-time flights, service

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A dispute about Mesa Airlines' United Express service to and from Yampa Valley Regional Airport doesn't appear to be going away.

Several days after learning about a letter criticizing his airline's service to Routt County's only commercial airport, the chief executive officer of Mesa Airlines angrily rejected the assertions and demanded a public apology.

"Those statements are absolutely false, malicious and untrue," said Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa Air Group. "They are potentially damaging to our relationship with United. We will not stand by and allow that to happen."

The statements Ornstein objected to were written in a letter signed by numerous Routt County government, business and airport officials. The letter, dated Feb. 15, was sent to United Express Vice President Sean Donohue in Chicago. Mesa Airlines is under contract to fly United Express flights out of several major airline hubs, including Denver International Airport. Mesa Airlines also is United Express' sole operator out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.

Ornstein also expressed strong displeasure with comments about Mesa made by Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. Marketing Vice President Andy Wirth.

Last week, Wirth said Mesa's service issues in mountain towns were systemic and not limited to Steamboat.

Ornstein said he would accept nothing less than a public apology from the community leaders who signed the letter.

Disputed service levels

The letter described steps taken by Routt County officials to strengthen commercial air service and facilities. It was signed by the mayors or city council presidents of three local municipalities, chairmen of the boards of two county commissions and business leaders, including Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. President Chris Diamond. It asked that United Express service here be switched from Mesa's fleet of Dash 8 turboprops to regional jets flown by SkyWest, another United Express contractor.

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

Specifically, local officials expressed dissatisfaction with Mesa's on-time performance, canceled flights and baggage problems.

In response to the letter, Ornstein set up a conference call Thursday with local officials. The call, which might have defused the situation, did not go well, according to those who took part.

"It was mind-boggling," Orn--stein said. "At one point, someone on the other end said, 'Don't confuse us with the facts!'"

Ornstein said voices were raised during the conference call, which involved Wirth, Diamond, YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel and airport terminal and landside manager Ann Copeland.

"It was largely unproductive, we're sorry to say," Wirth said about the phone conversation with Ornstein. "We realize the service challenges at the airport are broader than just Mesa. But the core of those issues clearly has been Mesa. We're not convinced Mesa fully grasps the magnitude of these service challenges."

Ornstein said he presented facts about his airline's on-time flight percentages as well as the percent of scheduled flights that operated. He added that those statistics did not seem to register with the Steamboat contingent.

Ornstein said his airline's on-time performance in Denver and Hayden rivals the best marks in the industry. He said airline performance standards consider an on-time flight as one that arrives within 14 minutes of its scheduled arrival. When flights affected by factors outside the airline's control -- weather and air traffic control instructions, for example -- are excluded, Ornstein said, Mesa flights were on time 83.36 percent of the time in Denver and 83.17 of the time in Hayden. During the past 12 months, except when there were circumstances that were not controllable by the airline, Mesa flew 99.53 percent of its scheduled flights in and out of Hayden, Ornstein said.

"Into a mountain town? I think that's a great number," he said. He added that the source of his statistics was United Airlines and that the numbers match his numbers.

The Air Travel Consumer Report prepared by the U.S. Department of Transportation does not reflect Mesa's on-time performance, apparently because Mesa does not meet the report threshold of having carried at least 1 percent of domestic airline enplanements in the past year. The report shows that in December 2005, Hawaiian Airlines had the best record, with 94.2 percent of arrivals being on time. Independence Air was next with a mark of 78.7 percent, and America West was third at 78.5 percent.

Ornstein said that of the 17 to 18 percent of the time Mesa is not on time at Hayden, 6 percent is accounted for by weather delays or air traffic control issues. It's not infrequent, he said, that a Mesa Dash 8 plane bound for YVRA is held at the gate at DIA to wait for a connecting passenger whose flight from the East Coast is late getting into Denver.

"I would think that would represent good service," Ornstein said.

Who's to blame?

Confusing perceptions of Mesa's performance on the route between DIA and YVRA, the airline executive said, is the fact that Mesa does not provide any ground services in Denver or Hayden. United Airlines contracts with SkyWest for gate representation in the commuter terminal and also for baggage handling.

"They (Steamboat community representatives) gave me 84 letters of complaint (from passengers)," Ornstein said. "I went through them, and 44 percent were about ground handling and baggage issues. We don't handle the baggage, we're contracted just to fly the planes."

Of the 84 written complaints, Ornstein said, only eight involved issues attributable to his airline.

Still, the executives who negotiate airline contracts for Ski Corp. remained firm in their position that Mesa has significant service issues to be corrected. Like Ornstein, they say they obtain their statistics from United.

Ski Corp. airline program manager Janet Fischer said Mesa completed 93 percent of its scheduled flights in December, when snowfall was heavy. However, she said more than half of them were late. Most troubling, she said, was a five-day period in December when the airline canceled 13 flights. During a similar time period in January, 11 flights were canceled. During those same periods, other airlines were able to fly in and out of YVRA.

Ruppel, YVRA's manager, confirmed that full-size passenger jets consistently landed during the same period, often within an hour of the scheduled arrival time of a United Express flight.

Ornstein flatly rejected the notion that the Dash 8 isn't suitable for landing at a mountain airport in snowy conditions. Instead, he said it's particularly well-suited to that kind of flying.

Ruppel said all of the commercial aircraft serving YVRA operate under the same landing visibility minimums. The "approach plate" in cockpits advise pilots that if they come within 460 feet of the ground and do not have a visual on the runway, they should abandon the landing and go around, or in some instances, divert to another airport.

Ultimately, "each pilot and each airline has to make their own decision about when and when not to land," Ruppel said.

Ornstein said Mesa doesn't cancel flights to YVRA because there aren't enough passengers.

"We have a revenue-guaranteed contract (with United)," Ornstein said. "Even if no one is on the plane, we still get paid. You never cancel a flight if you can avoid it."

A turbulent future?

Mesa is under contract to continue flying the Denver/YVRA route in the spring, summer and fall. Ornstein pledged that his dispute with community leaders would not negatively affect the airline's performance.

"Of course, we're going to do the best job for United and our passengers that we can do," Ornstein said. However, he said he felt the approach taken to addressing the issues was a "disservice to a progressive community."

Wirth said the intent is to continue working for improved air service for the community, but going forward, those efforts likely will be focused on United officials in Chicago.

"The reality is, these issues are real," Wirth said.

Ornstein repeated his demand for a public apology.

"Our people work really hard to do an incredible job in that community," Ornstein said. "My people work too hard to have their efforts undermined."

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