Reposted with permission from the Hobbs News Sun.
 
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NEWS-SUN PHOTO Contractors put finishing touches on the exterior of the expanded portion of Lea County Regional Airport terminal in this New-Sun file photo. Experts expect Phase 1 of the current construction to be completed by the end of March.

If anyone ever doubted the wisdom of scheduling non-stop flights between Hobbs and Denver, last weekend would set them straight.

Every flight was 100% booked for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, according to Kent Myers, president and managing partner of Airplanners Inc.

Myers said his Colorado-based company is the liaison and negotiator between communities, airports and airlines. He has been working with the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County for eight years.

Flights on United Airlines Express to and from Houston began in 2011, with Denver added to the schedule in late October.

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SUBMITTED PHOTO This is an artist’s rendition of the terminal expansion and renovation at the Lea County Regional Airport.

With only November for a full-month data watch, Myers hailed as a success the new daily Denver-Hobbs non-stop flights and current renovation of the Lea County Regional Airport during a recent meeting with the News-Sun. By “success,” Myers meant the number of passengers keeps growing as expected.

“This airport will change Hobbs forever. For 100 years, it will be different because of this airport. The lifestyle will change,” Myers said. “People that come here to raise their family or have their profession or career can get out and people can get in.”

Myers touted a wide range of passengers and purposes for flying.

“It’s exciting to me to see people looking at it and say, ‘My daughter is able to come home for Christmas this year because of the Denver flight.’” Myers said. “It’s that personal to a lot of people. And it’s important to ExxonMobil. There’s the range.”

EDC Executive Director Missi Currier joined a discussion of the future that began with a question about the next possible oilfield downturn.

Currier said, “While we hope that oil and gas is a long-term play, we hope that FlyHobbs can be an even longer term play to serve whatever industry is here at the time, not only from an economic perspective, but for the quality of life it brings to people in the region.”

The Houston flights program struggled early on, Myers said, because of dips in the economy and a generation of flyers stuck on driving to Lubbock or Midland to travel.

“I think it kind of culminated in the last three years where all of a sudden the economy got a little better,” Myers said. “The EDC set it up from a marketing standpoint and people started saying, ‘You know, this is a real deal.’”

The addition of a Denver flight provides even greater opportunities, he added.

Myers said, “Denver and Houston play off of each other and complement because, not only do we have a 50% increase in the number of available seats, but if you’re in Pittsburgh or Minneapolis or Detroit, you don’t always have to fly Houston. You can fly Denver. The flights are timed that way.”

Currently, United flies 50-seat airplanes into the Hobbs airport, two per day from Houston. Adding one flight from Denver boosts the number of seats available by 50%.

The weather in southeastern New Mexico makes flying in and out even more convenient.

“What is really great about it is the on-time performance of these flights,” Myers said. “If it’s not the best in the country, it’s close to it. You have very few cancellations, very few late flights. It’s remarkable, the consistency of it, and it’s because of your weather.”

Flying into Hobbs himself on Thursday, Myers said he’s impressed by the construction going on to improve the traveler’s experience.

Lea County Assistant Manager Corey Needham explained current and future changes to the airport.

“Beyond just the customer experience, being more roomy, additional rental car company, more choices, restrooms in the secured area, food vendor choices in the secured area, probably the biggest will be the flexibility it changes,” Needham said. “Right now, we have to deal with it. Five years ago, it was the 50-seat problem. Now, it’s not a 50-seat problem. It may be something else in five years.”

Warned about five years ago that United Airlines may be changing to 76-seat airplanes, Needham began preparing for the larger airplanes. Then, United recently made equipment changes that resulted in more 50-seat airplanes available.

“The way we’re building it, we can deal with three 50-seat airplanes or two 76-seat airplanes on the ground at one time,” Needham said. “We can deal with one (Boeing) 737 or Airbus 319 on the ground. We’ll have the flexibility to adjust. … That gives us the opportunity to optimize schedules.”

Needham explained Phase 1 of airport restructuring is building out the terminal to provide more room and better amenities for passengers while improving the security area. He anticipated Phase 1 will be completed in late March.

Phase 2 is renovation of the existing terminal, moving more rental cars in there and moving the ticketing counter. Phase 2 is expected to be completed in mid-summer 2020.

Much of Phase 3 will be worked while Phase 2 is in progress. Phase 3, enlarging the seating area for passengers again, likely will be completed about the same time as Phase 2, Needham said.

Meanwhile, county contractors are tripling the parking area, from the current 298 to 902 parking spaces by the end of March. And, at least for the foreseeable future, parking remains free at the Lea County Regional Airport.

Working with Myers on air travel negotiations, consultant Bill Tomcich pointed out the need to book flights early to avoid fare price increases.

“In addition to booking early, check back often because prices do change,” Tomcich said.

Following a discussion of reasonable fares, Geni Cavanaugh, EDC director of marketing and community outreach, chimed in, “I think the most important thing if we want this airport to be a success, we need to use it to its potential. The message is that for pleasure or business, we want to be part of the choice for people in Lea County.”

Asked whether United Airlines appears satisfied with the Hobbs contract, Tomcich quoted United’s director of network planning as saying “the way the MRG, minimum revenue guarantee, has been handled by the community here in Hobbs is an A-plus out of the playbook on how to do it right.”

Currier added, “We not only want this to be an A-plus opportunity for United, but we want it to be an A-plus opportunity for the taxpayers of Lea County. We want to be cognizant that we’re not just hemorrhaging taxpayer money when it comes to subsidy. So, the better the airline does and the better opportunities it has here, it’s a symbiotic partnership. United is making money; we’re not spending money, but we’re improving the quality of life. That’s an important thing to us.”

Both the City of Hobbs and the Lea County government have budgeted funds each year to subsidize the airline when the load factor, the number of seats booked divided by the number of seats available, drops below a break-even point. Myers said that point is about 74%, but many other factors are involved.

Curtis C. Wynne may be contacted at reporter3@hobbsnews.com.