Fourth time's a charm

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Soderquist > Ready to bring air service contract to council

By Arin McKenna

Los Alamos has seen three attempts to bring commercial air service to the county fail since the Department of Energy stopped subsidizing air service in 1995. Airport Manager Peter Soderquist has no intention of letting a fourth attempt meet the same fate.

Soderquist, who conducted extensive research before even floating the idea of trying again to the Los Alamos County Council, has detailed a plan that includes right-sized aircraft, scheduling that corresponds with key flights at the Albuquerque International Sunport and fares that compete with other means of transportation.

Soderquist plans to highlight the differences between this venture and earlier ones when he brings the contract for a new carrier before council Feb. 12.

Two key issues that caused earlier airlines to fail have been addressed in the contract Soderquist is working out with New Mexico Airlines, which presented the most promising response to the county’s Request for Proposals.

One key element is utilizing right-sized aircraft. Mesa Airlines, the second failed attempt, had an operating cost of $1,600 an hour due to the size of the aircraft. Mesa had a cancellation rate of 20 percent, largely due to the high price of flights.

New Mexico Airlines has plans to fly Cessna Caravans, with an operating cost of just $650 an hour. Ticket prices will be competitive with rental car rates or long-term parking at the airport.

Rio Grande Airlines used the appropriately sized aircraft, but lacked another key ingredient: code sharing and interline agreements. New Mexico Airlines has code sharing agreements with 65 or more airlines, which enables customers to book a flight from anywhere in the world with connections directly to Los Alamos.

“That is so important for people who are flying from other places to here,” Soderquist said. “When Rio Grande Airlines was here, you could book a flight from Tokyo to Albuquerque, but then you would have to find out how to get up here. This will be like a one-stop shop.”

Soderquist also plans to insure that flight schedules coincide with key flights to and from the Sunport. Inconvenient scheduling was also cited as a contributing factor in Mesa Airline’s failure.

The initial plan posited to council would have split a $150,000 subsidy for the first year of air service equally between Los Alamos National Laboratory and the county.

But Soderquist has obtained a $272,000 grant from United States Department of Transportation Office of Aviation Affairs to “support commercial airline service for Los Alamos, including marketing and advertising.” The State of New Mexico awarded the new service another $25,000 grant; and LANL is contributing $15,000. The county’s match for the grant funding is $28,000.

Soderquist has also developed a detailed plan for getting the most mileage from the grant money.

“Some airports get that grant and just throw it at an airline, and the airline says, ‘thank you very much.’ Which is a silly idea,” said Adrian Fox, managing director for BFT International, a branding and marketing firm already selected through competitive bidding to market the air service.

“They’ve come up with a much better plan so that this can support our service for a number of years. I’ve worked with airports all over the country and I was very impressed with how the team at your end is putting it all together.”

Earlier ventures also lacked the aggressive marketing campaign the county plans to launch once council approves an airline contract.

“My company is the only full service marketing and communications company in America and Europe, and in the world, as far as I know, that specializes in aviation marketing,” Fox said.

The campaign will focus on convincing LANL personnel and visitors to use the service. It will also target business and leisure travel to and from Los Alamos, Taos and Española.

“This is important because Los Alamos National Lab spends millions of dollars to travel to Washington D.C., Chicago and other locations around the world. And it’s an hour and 40 minute trip by car to Albuquerque,” said Los Alamos Economic Vitality Director Greg Fisher. “We want to make ourselves more convenient as a community for direct flights. We also see an opportunity to bolster our visitation and our overnight stays.”

Fox’s campaign hopes to convince lab employees — which he said average tens of thousands of flights a year–to forego that long drive in favor of a 25-minute hop from the local airport. Travelers can arrive fresher at their destination and not have to worry about the possibility of a drive home in adverse weather conditions after a long day of travel.

Fisher also sees this as a boost for economic development.

In anticipation of the new air service, Enterprise Rent-a-Car is opening a desk at the airport early in February, joining Hertz in providing local transportation.

“This is certainly an opportunity for us,” Fisher said. “It’s one of the checkboxes for community that is engaged in the global economy and growing, and LANL certainly puts us on the map with the global economy. So it’s something we need to be doing.”

If council approves the New Mexico Airlines contract, the marketing campaign could be launched almost immediately, anticipating a start date for air service in early April.

The proposal comes before council at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 during a regular meeting in council chambers.