By Mary Alice Murphy

At the Grant County Commission special meeting on July 10, 2018, which was called for the purpose of making a decision on which of two applicants to recommend for essential air service, commissioners chose the new applicant Advanced Air over the more experienced and successful Boutique Air.

Grant County Airport Manager Rebekkah Wenger put together an information sheet with a comparison on costs and schedules.

She noted that one of the things the U.S. Department of Transportation will consider in its decision is pricing.

Commissioner Harry Browne asked if the nine-passenger planes of Advanced Air would require more staff.

Wenger said it would require "more of an adjustment after everyone gets training."

Browne also said that he did not see in Advanced Air's proposal any pricing, similar to the books of tickets that Boutique offers, that would be attractive to personnel at Aldo Leopold Charter School, where he works.

"We won't have books," Mark Fleisher, who was present at the meeting as consultant to Advanced Air, said. "We will give a code to officials and other frequent customers that they will use to get a lower rate. It will be $79 one-way to Albuquerque for customers. We are still debating whether it will be $69 or $70 with the discount."

Commission Chairman Billy Billings said he had already written a letter of recommendation to the USDOT. "Do we want a joint letter?"

Commissioner Gabriel Ramos said he wanted a joint letter.

"I wrote my letter in favor of Advanced Air," Billings said. "My biggest concern is what will happen to Boutique's service in the interim. I hope we hold them accountable to the end of their contract."

Wenger said the transition is that the USDOT will make a decision within the next month. "The new contract service begins on January 1. If Advanced Air is awarded the contract, Boutique will continue its service through Dec. 31. It's what they get paid for. Any flights that are not completed are not paid for contractually. They are required to complete them. Boutique is already over the number of canceled flights that they are allowed during the contract period. They have to meet the number of flights they have contracted to, with no more than 50 canceled. They have exceeded that number. But we expect that with Boutique finishing out the year, we will surpass last year in enplanements. If we exceed the 10,000 enplanements this year, we may be eligible for up to $1 million in funding. It behooves them to maintain their schedule. At the end of June, we had 5,500 enplanements."

Ramos commented that last month, he flew Boutique. "I called the phone number to get the price. I got a confirmation for a $69 flight one way, but my credit card said $123. I am not happy."

Billing reported that in Phoenix a lady was on her second day of trying to get to Silver City, because of a canceled flight. "She was given no compensation for having to spend the night."

Commissioner Brett Kasten made a motion to use Billings' letter as a start for the joint letter to the DOT from the commissioners.

Browne asked Fleisher about the scheduling. Fleisher replied that the options were given in the proposal. "We would like for you to weigh in and the DOT will take your requests into consideration."

To a question about whether the commissioners could discuss the schedule in closed session, County Attorney Abigail Burgess said they could discuss it only in open session, perhaps after the closed session, but not in the executive session, because it was not on the agenda.

When the commissioners came out of executive session more than three hours later, they quickly moved to join the class action suit of counties and states alleging underpayment of PILT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) by the federal government in the years 2015, '16, and '17 and asking to regain the lost funding, which was .

Kasten asked staff to write the letter recommending Advanced Air using Option 2 of the proposed schedules.

The commissioners left for a closed session with the Gila Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees.

[Editor's Note: Again, on the July 19, 2018, Commission regular session agenda is the item under executive session of Disposal of county property, including Gila Regional Medical Center. Perhaps, this time a decision will be made?]

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