Businesses battle for air space in Clovis

By Marlena Hartz

Two companies have entered bids to provide federally subsidized air service in Clovis.

Wyoming-based Great Lakes Aviation wants to extend its contract serving Clovis, and an airline based in Hawaii wants to create a niche serving Clovis and other small New Mexico cities.

Great Lakes has offered two 19-seat flights daily in Clovis for two years, according to Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell.
“We’ve been extremely pleased with the Clovis community. We’d like to continue our service,” Howell said.

Pacific Wings Airlines President Greg Kahlstorf said his airline wants to offer New Mexicans flights on nine-seat planes to and from cities such as Albuquerque, Clovis, Deming and Silver City, as well as tourist destinations such as Taos and Carlsbad.

“We want to weave these small communities into a coherent fabric — a small delivery network,” he said.
The federal subsidies guarantee small communities are served by certified air carriers, according to a government Web site on the program.

Clovis City Commissioners will give its recommendation to the U.S. Department of Transportation in February, according to Clovis Municipal Airport Director Steve Summers.

Great Lakes received an annual subsidy of about $1.7 million to provide service on Clovis and Silver City/Hurley/Deming routes. The Great Lakes contract expires in March. Another two-year contract for service is up for bid on those routes, and would go into effect May 1, according to a press release from Sen. Pete Domenici, R.-N.M.

Pacific Wings intends to operate those routes with a $1.4 million annual subsidy, according to a copy of its bid.
Kahlstorf said Pacific Wings wants to offer flights from Clovis to New Mexico destinations and to Amarillo and Lubbock.

Trips would initially run around $90, with a goal of reductions to around $30, he said. Great Lakes also offers trips at around $90.

Pacific Wings would wean itself from federal subsidies in New Mexico, a goal the company accomplished in Hawaii, Kahlstorf said.

“Congress does everything from threatening to eliminate the (essential air service) program all together or cut funds. In 2000, we decided we wanted to be in a (better) position. We didn’t want to bale out of the communities we were in, and we didn’t want to be dependent on government handouts,” Kahlstorf said.

Once an airline operates a route without federal subsidies, other airlines are prevented from getting subsidies for that same route.

The key to cutting strings to federal aid: economical nine-seat planes, Kahlstorf said.

Airlines with rural routes usually offer rides on 19-seat planes, even with one or two passengers onboard, Kahlstorf said.

An average of three to four people fly daily in places such as Clovis and Silver City, Kahlstorf said. Using larger planes for tiny markets is bad economics, he said.

“We found New Mexico to be absolutely perfect for our aircraft,” he said.

Meanwhile, Clovis officials are asking the New Mexico Legislature to fund $900,000 for airport improvements, and an 1800-foot runway extension is in the works.

Summers predicts passengers at the airport may quadruple when the 16th Special Operations Wing assumes ownership of Cannon Air Force Base in October.

In the first nine months of 2006, 3,216 passengers flew the Great Lakes Clovis-Albuquerque route, according to the press release from Domenici.

Kahlstorf said growth at the airport would not affect his vision for service. Should flight demand increase, Kahlstorf said he would offer more nine-seat flights.

Approximately 140 rural communities across the country that otherwise would go without scheduled air service receive such subsidies, according to the Web site.