With two proposals from different companies to provide Essential Air Service on the table at their Feb. 5 meeting, the Alliance City Council delved into the issue, voting 4-1 to recommend Denver Air Connection to the Department of Transportation.
Currently, Boutique Air, one of the two companies that submitted a proposal, provides the city’s passenger air services.
At the meeting, Lynn Placek, Alliance Airport manager, described the process behind recommending Denver Air Connection as the company to serve Alliance. She said a committee comprised of citizens, business people and city officials conducted interviews with the two companies that submitted proposals: Denver Air Connection, based in Englewood, Colo., and Boutique Air, based in San Francisco, Calif.
She told the council the committee ranked the companies based on the city’s priority needs.
“The top two priorities for Alliance is reliability and price,” Placek said.
Placek said that in the reliability category, Boutique has had a high completion rate, but that the two companies were comparable. She said that in 2018, Boutique had 56 cancelled flights and Denver Air Connection had only three.
She told the council that timing of flights is an important factor for travelers, noting that Boutique had 444 delays in 2018, versus Denver Air Connection’s 58 delayed flights.
“There’s been many times sitting at the terminal where people are waiting. I have witnessed people having to call and change their flights and what they have to pay. It happens with … every airline is going to have cancellations and delays with weather, mechanics; that’s all normal. But, we are trying to compare what they’re going to do: they need to be able to get to Denver,” Placek said.
Taking those factors into consideration, the committee ranked Denver Air Connection higher than Boutique in the reliability category.
With pricing, Placek emphasized that the flights need to be more affordable than driving to Denver. She said Denver Air Connection would match Boutique’s pricing, though there would be three seats sold at the rate of $79 rather than two because Denver Air Connection will utilize a different style of plane: a Metroliner 23.
Another factor the committee discussed was the schedule for flights. Placek said Boutique ranked higher in that category.
“I believe we rated, um, Boutique higher on schedule for the sole fact that if both places run independent flights, if there’s weather in one community or the other, you would still have an option of going to the other. So, we rated them slightly higher,” said Placek.
Other factors the committee considered, Placek said, included, simplicity, communication, tourism, marketing, economic impact and comfort of the aircraft. Each company ranked similarly in those factors, with reliability being the only major difference considered by the group according to the narrative provided to the city council members.
Council Member Annora Bentley thanked the members of the committee for their time and for helping to guide the council in their decision.
During the discussion, Council Member Brian Mischnick asked Placek to address Denver Air Connection’s safety record, noting information that has been circling about the parent company, Key Lime, having an accident record.
“Key Lime is the parent company, which is freight and cargo,” Placek said. “Then you have Denver Air Connection, which is the passenger, commercial/passenger. So, Denver Air Connection has never had an accident and never had an incident with anything commercial. They’re separate. They have different certifications. They have different requirements.
“Cargo, this is exactly how it was described to me, (…) cargo is like an army medic doing an appendectomy on the battlefield with two instruments; commercial service is an appendectomy done in a modern hospital. It’s a different animal,” Placek said.
She explained that cargo pilots make all of the decisions on their own, and that they are put in more difficult situations due to the timely demand for goods. She also said commercial pilots have more stringent qualifications than cargo pilots, all to ensure the safety of the passengers.
“There is an article that is floating around, is my understanding, that talks about the number of crashes Key Lime has had, and fatalities. They have had crashes. That article is absolutely false and not correct. It talks about Key Lime and maintenance issues, and that wasn’t even, the company they were talking about in that article was not Key Lime. Key Lime was actually flying over the accident and helping communicate what was going on and happening. (…) (Key Lime has) had crashes, I’m not going to sit here and say they haven’t,” Placek said.
Placek went on to say that not one time has Key Lime been told they were responsible for the crashes. Council Member Earl Jones asked Placek what the cause of the crashes was. Placek responded that it was pilot error.
“Well, that’s their fault—it’s their pilot,” Jones said.
Placek responded that none of the crashes were caused by maintenance issues. She said the committee refrained from asking the companies questions about safety during the interviews.
“One thing I’ve always been taught, and I’ve learned a lot in this job, and I’ve had to learn it on the go, is there is not an airline that will hear this conversation and be happy that it’s being discussed. Because, in the end, it’s still safer to fly than it is to drive,” said Placek.
“This isn’t normally how this process works,” Placek said. “I’ve been directed, every single time we’ve interviewed, or went anywhere, when we did our little speed dating trying to get people interested in coming here four years ago, directed by more than one person, you do not ask them about safety. That’s already a given. I don’t know what else to say about it other than I feel it was a really good scare tactic. (…) You’re not comparing apples to apples when you look at it. If you want to compare apples to apples, it’s Denver Air Connection to Boutique, and that’s fair and that’s honest.”
Mischnick said, regardless of the fairness of the discussion, the perception of safety needs to be addressed.
Mayor Mike Dafney asked Placek what the Department of Transportation has said about the crashes, and Placek said that “there’s not been one finding that has went back to Key Lime.”
Dafney said the perception has to be that there are two different entities: freight and passenger. Each with different qualifications and requirements for the pilots.
“The perception might be out there, but the bottom line is it’s two different things,” Dafney said.
During the discussion about safety, City Manager Rick Kuckkahn, who served on the committee, said Key Lime serves as the NCAA’s choice for transportation for 30 sports teams, noting the NCAA’s satisfaction with their service.
Dafney clarified with Placek about the morning flights currently coming out of Chadron. He said with Denver Air Connection, Alliance will have stand alone flights. According to the proposed spring Chadron-Alliance Denver International Airport schedule, Boutique would also have the stand alone flights, adding a second plane to be based in Alliance.
“Chadron, their airport isn’t anywhere close to ours, especially when it comes to snow removal and de-icing. If Chadron gets up in the morning and needs to come down here, and it’s such that they need de-iced, they can’t do it. Our people are standing in the terminal waiting. This will take care of this; this will solve this. That will not happen here. We can de-ice at ours.”
Placek clarified that aircraft have de-icing capabilities at both Chadron and Alliance, but that Alliance has the ability to de-ice their runways.
Jones asked Placek about the binding nature of the contract.
“So, in the end, this contract that we’re talking about, is it, like when they say they’ll meet Boutique’s fair rate and all of that, is there any binding, or is this like a cable contract where you can do whatever you want?” Jones asked.
Placek responded that there is nothing binding, but that this is the most that Alliance has had a place at the table with both Boutique and Denver Air Connection in their discussions about pricing.
“So, either one of these airlines could raise their rates tomorrow if they got the contract and say ‘well we thought we could do it for that, but we can’t.’ So there’s nothing binding,” Jones said.
Kuckkahn said that the only pressure on the companies to stick to the agreement would be the renewal discussion that will come in two years.
Mischnick asked if there was enough separation between Key Lime and Denver Air Connection and the way they are managed, and Placek responded there are different rules and qualifications for operating commercial and passenger planes.
“Key Lime’s been flying in here for years, bringing UPS in,” Placek said. “(…) Cargo’s how it is — it’s a different creature. This isn’t unusual. Every airline you go to, you’re going to have something. There’s a Key Lime pilot who lives here and is stationed here. No hesitation whatsoever, and I think now, there’s this perception they’re not doing what they should do. It was never because of maintenance. Those (crashes) did not happen because of maintenance.”
Kuckkahn said that, from his perspective as a committee member, they just have to trust the safety experts on this issue.
“I don’t think any of us here could sit in the seat of someone who’s looking at this airline and saying it’s safe or not (…). There’s a level of expertise there that transcends some of our ability to evaluate the different entities: Key Lime and Denver Air Connection,” Kuckahn said.
Placek said that Denver Air Connection has passed all of the requirements and is certified. Council Member Ryan Reynolds asked Placek about Boutique’s safety record as a point of comparison.
“They’re both safe,” Placek responded. “I don’t have anything to say. I don’t believe that there has never been anything (…)”
“Well I know I feel safer on a multi-prop plane than I do on a single-prop plane, so, there’s that,” Reynolds said.
Placek said some of the committee members asked about the safety of some of the aircraft, but that they, overall, refrained from questions about safety.
“I directed them not to ask safety questions, and I didn’t know what Key Lime’s history was because they have their certifications with their bidding, and they wouldn’t be allowed to if they weren’t in good standing. So, they’re clear,” Placek said.
A representative of Boutique was at the meeting, but since the item on the agenda was not a public hearing, but rather a discussion between council and staff, she was unable to address the council.
On the motion to recommend Denver Air Connection to the Department of Transportation, Mischnick, Dafney, Bentley and Reynolds voted in favor, and Jones voted against it. The resolution was approved.
A full audio file from the Feb. 5 Alliance City Council meeting can be heard on the Alliance Times-Herald website at www.alliancetimes.com.