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COVID-19 test samples are being delivered to a New Mexico Department of Health laboratory. A recent shipment came from Four Corners Regional Airport. Wochit

Direct SkyWest jet flights to Denver are the result of runway upgrades, grants and negotiations

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AZTEC — The Four Corners Regional Airport will soon have jets flying out of it for the first time in 30 years after commercial air service ended three years ago.

During a City Council meeting on June 23, City Manager Rob Mayes said Great Lakes Aviation leaving Farmington in 2017 was a “blessing in disguise because it opened up the opportunity for us to seek federal funding to upgrade our runway in order to accommodate larger regional jets. And so that began the saga about three years ago to create this opportunity."

Mayes said the city had a good partnership with Great Lakes before it was forced to leave the airport citing a pilot shortage. For a short time prior to the airline leaving Farmington, it flew 30-passenger turboprop aircraft. Those flights started in December 2016, according to The Daily Times archives. For the majority of its time in Farmington, Great Lakes flew 19-passenger planes in and out of the airport.

The runway upgrades are now complete. The City Council voted unanimously to approve an agreement with SkyWest Airlines for jets to fly in and out of Farmington starting in October. 

Planes will leave Farmington at 7 a.m. and fly to Denver, arriving there at 8:10 a.m. The planes will then leave Denver at 8:20 p.m. and arrive in Farmington at 9:30 p.m.

More: Farmington plans to return commercial air service to Four Corners Regional Airport

Airport Manager Mike Lewis said the fares will be less expensive than the Durango, Colorado, airport and he anticipates that will drive down prices of flights throughout the region.

These 50-seater planes will fly with the United Express logo, which allows for seamless transitions onto United flights in Denver.

It will cost more than $1.1 million to resume air service, but Lewis said the “lion’s share of the money is from the federal government.”

The city has been awarded a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration for $850,000 as well as a $200,000 grant from New Mexico Department of Transportation that will pay for promotion and revenue guarantee. It will provide $83,000 for the same purpose and will not charge landing fees or facility rent. In addition, the city plans to spend another $70,000 on marketing.

The revenue guarantee involves Farmington paying a block hour cost, however SkyWest has discounted that price in acknowledgement of the impact the coronavirus has had on air travel. The discount reduces the block hour costs from $2,606 to $2,206 through Feb. 28, 2021. SkyWest will only be reimbursed for costs exceeding passenger revenue.

Block hours are used to measure aircraft utilization. A block hour is the time from when the doors close prior to take off to the time they open after landing.

More: Runway upgrades should help bring air service back to Four Corners Regional Airport

Councilor Janis Jakino described the contract with SkyWest as a pivotal step in promoting outdoor recreation and diversifying the economy.

"It's going to open many doors and opportunities for locals and visitors alike," she said.

The mayor voiced similar opinions during the council meeting.

"When you're trying to market outdoor recreation and retirement living as two of your components for economic development, you need to have people who could fly directly to your city so that they can do those things," said Mayor Nate Duckett. "Which also then builds up your outdoor recreation businesses because you're going to have more demand for the services that we can provide. So somebody from Maine can fly into Denver, get to Farmington and we have a Jeep service company who can take them out jeeping and explore those areas. Or they can come here directly and now they can go to quality waters and go fly fishing. I mean there's so much opportunity that exists."

The contract is set to expire in 2022 and will have to be renewed at that time.

More: Top takeaways from the Farmington City Council's discussion about commercial air service

Lewis said a mid-day flight could be added in 2021 if there is enough passenger demand.

Duckett said community support, including utilization of the flights, will be important.

A recording of the meeting, including Lewis’ presentation, is available on the Farmington website, fmtn.org.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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