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Air Center gets grant for airline expansion

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Federal funds provide $750K

[Note: This post has been updated to add a comment by Sen. Tom Udall.]

The Roswell Air Center has received a $750,000 federal grant to help the airport expand its commercial airline service, with Denver being the city’s targeted destination.

“That puts us into the next phase of our air service development plan,” said Air Center Director Scott Stark. “Now that we have that in hand, we can go talk to United (Airlines) and say, ‘OK, let’s move on to the next step.’”

Air Center staff submitted the Small Community Air Service Development grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in October and heard Wednesday that the funding had been received.

They now have two years to use the grant money and other funding they secure to develop an agreement with United or some other airline. The grant could be extended for a year if warranted, Stark said.

He said that the money will be used as part of a Minimum Revenue Guarantee to offer an airline to come to Roswell, with some portion also available to advertise and promote the flights.

“We are very happy and very excited,” said Stark, who expressed appreciation for the people who helped coordinate the grant application.

Stark; Mark Bleth, Air Center deputy director; Mayor Dennis Kintigh and other city leaders have been talking with United Airlines and Denver International Airport since early 2019 about adding flights to and from Roswell. The local airport already has commercial flights to and from Phoenix and Dallas with American Airlines. It had about 56,632 aircraft boardings in 2018, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.

In April 2019, the Roswell Air Center and Denver airports signed a “sister airport” agreement, allowing the two entities to share information and work on mutual goals. The Denver airport also has pledged $500,000 toward the airline service development effort.

“We are pleased the U.S. DOT has awarded this grant to support the opportunity to pursue nonstop flights between our two cities, and we look forward to working together to build a successful business case for service,” said Kim Day, chief executive officer of the Denver airport.

Emily Williams, United public information officer, also added that its analysis indicated that adding a Denver flight would provide Roswell travelers one-stop access to 35 other destinations that now they must make two stops to reach.

In addition, the analysis showed that United service between Denver and Roswell would provide new one-stop connectivity to more than 35 domestic destinations that must be accessed from Roswell with two stops today. “That is the power of the Denver hub,” Williams said.

City staff said that marketing studies conducted in summer 2017 of 1,200 people using the Roswell airport found that many wanted the option of another destination and another airline carrier. Research also has shown that 63% of people living in the area travel to other cities for commercial air travel, Stark said. Of that group, 75% are traveling for business, with the remaining 25% flying for leisure or personal reasons.

A consulting firm working with the city identified the Denver International Airport, the nation’s fifth busiest with 31 million passengers a year, as the best option for expansion for Roswell, city staff have said.

Bleth said that city managers will now work to secure up to $650,000 from surrounding communities and counties to develop adequate MRG funding for new carrier service.

The Dallas and Phoenix flight services also had MRG agreements. The Dallas service, established in 2007, never required the funding to be used because it was profitable from the start. The Phoenix flights, which began in March 2016, did require the more than $1 million in MRG support from the consortium of city and county partners until the flights became profitable around March 2018.

The New Mexico congressional delegation — Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-Albuquerque; Sen. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe; and Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-Las Cruces — have expressed their support of the expansion and grant. They also have worked with the Roswell Air Center staff and city officials on previous federal grants and federal legislation for runway upgrades, terminal expansion and building improvements.

The congressional members said that they consider such funding essential to job and economic growth.

“This is an incredible economic opportunity for Roswell International Air Center to expand its services to Denver International Airport,” said Heinrich. “Roswell continues to prove, time and time again, its viability for connecting communities all across New Mexico to tourism and business opportunities — now reaching to new regions in the country.”

“Investments in our rural communities are critical to ensuring all corners of New Mexico have access to economic opportunity and growth,” said Torres Small.

This grant for the Roswell Air Center will help grow the Roswell economy, facilitating tourism, travel and commerce,” Udall said. “As a member of the Senate Appropriations and Commerce Committees, I’ll keep fighting for these investments that empower rural communities and keep our state connected.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.