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City hopes for airline competition

12/3/2013

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

SkyWest Airlines could be the new carrier for Hays Regional Airport after the city of Hays solicited the company.

The city sent the airline a marketing presentation promoting the airport's opportunities for growth, the city's strengths and data on flights. Great Lakes Airlines, the airport's carrier, had an on-time rate of 52 percent in October, according to the presentation.

Great Lakes' contract with the airport ends in April. Monday was the deadline for carriers to submit bids to the U.S. Department of Transportation for consideration.

The federal division will choose who services the airport because it subsidizes its flights through the Essential Air Service program. The terminal receives $2 million in funds through two years from the DOT.

Toby  Dougherty, Hays  city manager, said the city reached out to SkyWest because the airline submitted a bid during the airport's last contractual process in 2011.

The city "begrudgingly" recommended DOT choose Great Lakes over SkyWest that year because the airport's crosswind runway could not support larger aircraft at the time. Great Lakes uses planes that can hold 19 passengers, and SkyWest, if chosen, could transport 40 travelers each flight.

Recent runway renovations allow the airport to handle larger jets.

Great Lakes' performance has been a "disservice" to the airport since its contract was renewed in 2011, Dougherty said. Many community members have a "horror story" about flights that have been canceled or delayed for reasons related to staff and equipment issues.

"They have done nothing but go downhill," he said. "Their on-time percentage is atrocious. They are driving passengers away from our airport. This is not just about trying to find an incrementally better carrier, this is about the long-term viability of the airport."

Justin Baalmann, Hays, flew out of his hometown airport Monday. He has experienced setbacks flying with Great Lakes.

"I've had several misfortunes of delayed flights and canceled flights that have hindered the way I do business," Baalmann said.

Dougherty said only 8 percent of people in the terminal's catchment area, the area most likely to use the airport, are flying out of Hays. The other 92 percent are using the airports in Denver, Wichita, Garden City and Manhattan.

Another carrier could give the airport new life, he said. Better service might lead to more routes and less dependency on federal funds.

"I think it'll be a new model out there. ... Throw everything you knew about the airport out the window, and this is the new model," he said.