Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

After transition, won't be able to land in Crescent City

The deafening hum of a turboprop spinning outside the window of an airplane coming to or from Del Norte County Regional Airport will be a sound of the past by next summer - at least under SkyWest Airlines.

The regional carrier based in St. George, Utah, announced Monday that it will "transition to an all-jet fleet by removing all remaining30-seat Embraer 120 Brasilia turboprop aircraft" - the aircraft that services Crescent City's airport.

SkyWest corporate communications director Marissa Snow said that SkyWest will start phasing out the Brasilia turboprops in January 2015 and will transition to the all-jet fleet by May 1, 2015.

"We would like to continue servicing Crescent City, but unfortunately after May, we will not have an aircraft that can land there," Snow told the Triplicate.

But SkyWest has a contractual obligation with the federal government to service Crescent City under an Essential Air Service (EAS) agreement, a federal program that providesfunding to guarantee that small communitiesare serviced by certified airline carriers.The regional jets that SkyWest will use after May cannot land at Crescent City airport, Snow said,but Del Norte County Regional Airport director Matthew Leitner said that when runway constraints exist, airline carriers can "perform reduced weight operations in order to be able to serve the market."

While Leitner was airport manager of the Jamestown Regional Airport in North Dakota, Delta Airlines attempted to withdraw from its EAS contract before a replacement carrier was in place, citing the shedding of another turboprop, the Saab 340.But after Leitner's consultation, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a hold-in order forcing Delta to continue servicing Jamestown, using CRJ 200 regional jets to fulfill the rest of the contract.

"This is an Essential Air Service market, not an optional market.They promised to serve us until July 31, 2015," Leitner said. "It's not going to be a situation where we don't have an airline, because they are contractually obligated to serve this community through July 31, 2015."

Snow, SkyWest's spokesperson, disagreed, saying that her understanding was that when there was a fleet type change, carriers are not obligated to fulfill the EAS contract.

While Leitner said that SkyWest's plan for the Brasilia turboprop was a surprise, Snow said that SkyWest has been in "ongoing conversations with each airport about evaluating the Brasilia fleet and unfortunately we won't be able to continue the service."

The double-speak is not unique to Crescent City.

Just one month ago, according to the Moab Sun News, Snow told airport officials of Canyonlands Field Airport "that the company had no immediate plans to adjust its service to Moab's airport."

But just like in Crescent City this week, Snow said that Moab will no longer be serviced by SkyWest past April 31, 2015.

SkyWest is partially blaming the fleet change on extra costs incurred by operating under new Federal Aviation Administration regulations called FAR 117, which went into effect in January 2014.

The new regulations require airlines to give more off-duty time to pilots to ensure they receive an eight-hour sleep opportunity. The regulations have spurred a pilot-hiring boom for airlines.

"It's an economic decision," Snow said of how the pilot rest rules played into the shedding of the turboprop fleet."It's the total crew and operating cost of the aircraft.It would be costing more for the same amount of flying. It has made the fleet no longer feasible."

SkyWest will lose $55andndash;$70 million from the phase-out of the Brasilia fleet and the early end to a contract with United to operate 50-seat regional jets.

When asked how losing $55andndash;$70 million compared with the losses expected from operating under the pilot rest regulations, Snow said she was unaware of how the figures compare.

In June 2014 SkyWest ended flights to Klamath Falls, Ore., and Modesto using the E120 Brasilia turboprops, causing some airline industry insiders to say that the writing was on the wall for Crescent City.

Some airline companies still operate turboprop aircraft, including Alaska Airlines, which flies the 76-seat Bombardier Q400.

The Border Coast Regional Airport Authority, which manages Crescent City's airport, approved the hiring of a consultant in October to find any and all qualified potential bidders for Crescent City's next EAS contract.

"I expect the (Department of Transportation) to expediate our (Request for Proposal for the EAS contract) given SkyWest's intentions," Leitner said. "We've already gotten a head start and we'll go through the process."

Emily Jacobs, program coordinator for Humboldt County Aviation Division, told the Lost Coast Outpost that she expects to see regional jets at Arcata's airport by January as a result of the Brasilia fleet's retirement. Jacobs said that flights will be less likely to be canceled with larger regional jets.

"With faster, quieter, more comfortable jets, we can economize the time slots, improve reliability, and increase comfort all at once," Jacobs told the Outpost.

Any passengers who have already booked tickets with SkyWest after the expected end date to Crescent City service will be contacted for re-accommodation, likely through a nearby airport, Snow said.

Reach Adam Spencer ataspencer@triplicate.com .

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