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City leaders, community work to keep American Airlines here

Mayor Dennis Kintigh, in gray suit, watches American Airlines planes arrive at the Roswell Air Center in September 2019. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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While city officials continue talks with American Airlines executives about the future of flight service here after November, the Roswell Chamber of Commerce is starting an initiative that is intended to show community appreciation of the flights.

“We are going to spearhead a thank-you-letter writing campaign to American Airlines to say thank you, at the very least, for not cutting off our service and maybe, just maybe, we can continue our service if we can get enough people to send emails and hard letters,” said Andrea Moore.

She is chair of the chamber’s board of directors and is also directing the organization while it searches for a permanent executive director.

The chamber intends to have preprinted letters available by Monday, as well as templates for emails. She said chamber members have email addresses and physical addresses for American Airlines that will be given to those in the community who want to express appreciation for the flights.

Chaves County Commissioner Dara Dana said she recently flew to Phoenix, via Dallas, to visit family, saving her a 10-hour drive.

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“They are a great asset for us — and our region, our county and our area, we need that connection, so I think that it is a great idea,” she said.

Moore said travel agency owner Elaine Dotts was the chamber member who suggested the idea.

“I think they should know how grateful we are to them,” Dotts said. “Everybody I know wants to be able to go places, and they provide a great service in getting people there more directly. They play a vital role in our community.”

Talks with American continuing

An air service consultant has told city officials that commercial air service in Roswell beyond November remains uncertain.

Jeffrey Hartz of Mead and Hunt told members of the city of Roswell Airport Advisory Commission Thursday that U.S. passenger counts are down about 45% compared to 2019, where they are expected to stay for the next six months.

“The airlines are dealing with quite the new world order, I guess you would say, where they didn’t know what to do with all the money they were making a few years ago, to where they don’t know how to stem the bleeding today,” Hartz said.

Many airlines, including American Airlines, have made it very clear to legislators and federal officials that they want additional Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) funding for payroll support so that they continue flight service.

“Their hope is to have federal assistance to get them through the winter in these uncertain times. Their hope and certainly our hope is that that federal package materializes,” Hartz said. “But American (Airlines) has made it clear that the status quo — quote, unquote — cannot continue nationwide. The demand just hasn’t rebounded enough to continue service nationwide as they have in the past.”

But the prospects of airline funding or any other coronavirus relief did not look good as of Friday evening, according to Associated Press reports. While congressional leaders had agreed to a stop-gap measure to keep federal government departments running until Dec. 11, most officials were saying that a larger relief package probably would not be negotiated until after the Nov. 3 general elections.

Mayor still willing if deal is needed

American Airlines had announced Aug. 20 that lower passenger demand due to COVID-19, as well as the lack of additional federal relief funding for U.S. airlines, made it necessary for the company to layoff up to 19,000 workers and to eliminate flight service to 15 smaller cities, including Roswell. The flight suspension was to start Oct. 7 and last until at least Nov. 3.

The timing of the announcement was tied to the Sept. 30 expiration of a provision of the first CARES relief package that required airlines to continue service to cities that had no other commercial flight service.

City officials learned of the suspension decision the night before the public announcement and began negotiating with airline executives to maintain the service here.

According to Kintigh, the city has indicated that it is willing to offer either a set dollar subsidy or a minimum revenue guarantee to offset unsold seats if necessary to keep the flights to and from Dallas and to reintroduce the Phoenix flights that had been discontinued in April. The deal Roswell was looking at would last until March 2021. Kintigh said that Chaves County and other local governments in the region also might pitch in financially.

“As mayor, I will do whatever I need to do within the limits of the law to ensure that we have continued service here. I think it is critical,” he said. “But, as we all know, I don’t have a vote unless there is a tie.”

In Roswell city government, the mayor does not vote on action items unless to break a tie among city councilors.

After its discussions with Roswell officials, American Airlines reversed its suspension decision on Aug 26, without requiring any type of financial contribution. Later it decided to continue service to Stillwater, Oklahoma, as well.

In addition, American found out after its announcement that two of the 15 cities — Sioux City, Iowa, and Joplin, Missouri — are actually part of a federal Essential Air Service program and must have commercial air service, with Federal Aviation Administration subsidies potentially available to support flights to those markets.

Hartz said Stillwater, like Roswell, is also working with the airlines to offer some sort of financial arrangements to continue air service through the winter if no additional federal funding is provided.

He said his communication with American Airlines executives leads him to believe that an agreement can be reached with Roswell.

Kintigh said the dollar amounts that would be needed by American Airlines to ensure continued service here are not known, but that waiving parking fees could be part of a deal.

“That takes a burden off of any type of municipal or community support because it means we don’t have to write them a check,” Kintigh said.

Air Center Director Scott Stark said the parking fee for American Airlines for the past month was $54,000.

Kintigh said another smaller air service company, Advanced Air, has indicated that they are interested in talking to the city about providing flights, as well. That might mean service to a bigger city within New Mexico.

The city also is still exploring adding flight service to Denver with another carrier, and Hartz indicated that formal talks about that are expected to begin with SkyWest and United after the spring.

“At this point,” Hartz said, “we are still having positive feedback from the airlines that they still are looking at options and opportunities for next year.”

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

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.