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There was a buzz of enthusiasm among a small group gathered at the Los Alamos Airport Friday to view the 9-passenger Cessna Caravan that New Mexico Airlines will use to fly to and from the Albuquerque Sunport starrting on Monday.
"This is a great deal," Allen Schmiedick said. "It is going to be at least as cheap as it would be to drive to Albuquerque and park a car. I can't imagine anybody not taking advantage of it."
Schmiedick–who had just stepped off of a short flight over Los Alamos–was as excited about the views as he was about the boon to travelers. With good reason: the vistas of the Pajarito Plateau from a cruising altitude of 8,500 feet are probably worth the price of the ticket. One resident said he would pay just to go on a joy ride if the airline offered it.
Chief Pilot Dave Jones introduced the gathering to features of the aircraft and flew the first flight. When two crews from Los Alamos Fire Station No. 6 arrived to get training on key elements for quick response, such as how to gain access to the engine or unload passengers, Jones reassured onlookers that the Caravan has a 99.8 percent reliability rating.
Community and Economic Development Department Associate Planner Daniel Osborn, who has had his own pilot license since he was 18, was impressed.
"It was awesome. It was a great flight, a great takeoff and a great landing," Osborn said. He plans to use the service for weekend trips to Albuquerque and to catch connecting flights to visit his family in Denver.
Los Alamos resident and county Building Inspector Joe Dudziak was also excited.
"The last time I flew commercially here was 1981 or '82," Dudziak said.
New Mexico Airlines begins running three flights a day Monday, at 6:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Flights from Albuquerque are at 7:40 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:50 p.m. Saturday and Sunday flights depart Los Alamos at 6:30 a.m. and Albuquerque at 7:30 p.m. The airlines is hoping to add another flight by Memorial day, have five daily flights by the fall and reach their goal of nine flights a day within 18 months.
"As we start seeing the flights get full, we're going to start adding flights. So it really depends on the community," Jones said. "Back in the '70s and '80s, there was ridership of 22,000 passengers a year. So I know that it's here. I know that Los Alamos is looking forward to having scheduled air service again. It's just going to take some time to build confidence in people after their experiences of the past."
The $49 seats will initially be subsidized by a $272,000 grant from United States federal Department of Transportation Office of Aviation Affairs obtained by Airport Manager Peter Soderquist. The State of New Mexico awarded the service another $25,000 grant, LANL is contributing $15,000 and the county's match for the grant funding is $28,000.
Airline officials are optimistic that they can achieve enough ridership and air cargo by the time the grant money runs out to maintain low air fares and be profitable.
For David Carroll, this is the realization of a long-cherished dream. Carroll has been working with others to bring back air service for 10 years now.
"One of the secrets to success will be lab usage. I hope they get on board–literally–and support this," Carroll said. "This is the kind of success that builds on itself. It's a wonderful opportunity, and I hope everyone takes advantage of it."
Council chair Geoff Rodgers also was on hand as he got a chance to sit in the cockpit along with his son Jason.
“Hopefully, this will encourage new economic activity as well as help existing businesses. It’s great for just regular travel as well and I plan to use it.
“Peter Soderquist, the airport manager, worked very hard to bring service to Los Alamos and did it in a manner that significantly leveraged local funds.
Soderquist said he was "beyond excited" to see air service become a reality, but added a plea to his enthusiasm.
"I respectfully request members of the community to use this service as often as they can, because if we do not use it we'll lose it," Soderquist said. "If that happens, I don't think we'll have an opportunity for this to come back."