Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Cortez council endorses Boutique Air’s bid for service: Opponent criticizes plane, supports former airline

Kathryn's Report:

Cortez City Council members on Tuesday endorsed Boutique Air’s bid to serve the city and unanimously voted to authorize Mayor Karen Sheek to sign a letter waiving the city’s guarantee for twin-engine service.

The council last month authorized Sheek to sign a letter recommending the Essential Air Service (EAS) bid to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The bid includes three Denver flights and one Phoenix flight, though the Department of Transportation could opt for another flight configuration, according to airport manager Russ Machen.

Essential Air Service is a subsidized U.S. program that seeks to guarantee airline service to small towns. Under the service rules, municipalities can throw out airline bids that include only single-engine planes.

If the Department of Transportation awards Boutique Air’s bid, after 60 consecutive days of the airline’s single-engine service to Cortez, the city no longer will be guaranteed twin-engine service. However, the city could endorse twin-engine bid in the future, Hale said.

Pilot doubts plane’s safety

The city endorsement drew criticism from retired pilot Garth Greenlee, who doubted that the Pilatus PC-12, which Boutique Air utilizes, would be reliable flying to Denver over 14,000-foot peaks during winter. If the plane’s engine failed, there would be no backup, he said.

“You’re making a terrible mistake” by endorsing Boutique Air, he said.

Machen said that he didn’t know of a Boutique Air accident involving the Pilatus PC-12, but that the last accident involving a single-engine plane at Cortez Municipal Airport occurred more than 20 years ago. The PC-12 is one of the most common planes at the airport, he said.

Machen pointed out that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t outlawed the PC-12 or other single-engine planes.

“If all of (Greenlee’s) fears were true, there would be no single-engine aircraft,” he said.

City Manager Shane Hale said city officials did not consider the plane’s accident record in discussions about air service. However, the FAA’s vetting of the plane model confirms its safety, he said. Air accidents are rare, and an incident involving a PC-12 seems to be extremely unlikely, he said.

“We have every confidence in the PC-12,” Hale said.

History of the PC-12

The PC-12 has been in production by Pilatus Aircraft since 1991. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there have been 17 incidents or accidents involving the aircraft in the U.S. since 2002. Out of those, six resulted in a total of 29 fatal injuries to passengers or crew members, according to NTSB reports.

The most recent incident took place Jan. 26 in Lawrenceville, Georgia, according to the NTSB. During takeoff, a plane was damaged after hitting a deer on the runway.

In March 2009, 13 passengers and a pilot died in a PC-12 crash near Butte, Montana, according to the NTSB. That crash was attributed to ice in the fuel system and the pilot’s failure to control the left wing when landing.

In December 2004, no injuries were reported after a Pilatus PC-12/45 lost engine power and hit two utility poles during a forced landing. Consequently, the entire fleet was fitted with a corrective unit to ensure a minimum fuel flow.

Great Lakes’ struggles

Boutique Air won the council’s confidence over Great Lakes Airlines, which has served Cortez for decades and has been the only airline to bid for the service for many years, according to Machen.

Greenlee said he had 23,000 hours of professional piloting experience in Cortez and Farmington, New Mexico. He chastised the council for their lack of faith in Great Lakes Airlines. A 2014 FAA regulation increased the number of hours pilots needed for certification from 500 to 1,500. That law made recruiting pilots more difficult for Great Lakes Airlines, which forced them to cut service and cancel flights at the Cortez airport, Machen said.

Greenlee acknowledged Great Lakes’ struggles, but said they are “trying hard” to get back to where they were before the new law. He chalked up the airline’s hardships to the “stupidity of the government,” referring to the new law. He accused the council of overlooking safety and choosing Boutique Air based on costs.

Machen said the EAS program was created to provide communities with quality air service, not to cut corners based on expenses.

Hale said Great Lakes’ loss of pilots, dwindling consumer confidence in Cortez and other issues contributed to the council’s endorsement of a different airline. Sheek said the council discussed the decision at length in multiple workshop sessions, and the endorsement wasn’t just about money.

“There were a lot of other things that came into play,” Sheek said. “We went with the airline that we think will give the citizens the best and safest service.”

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