By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT
After serving the Hays Regional Airport since 1998, Great Lakes Airlines has been sent packing by the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Transportation chose SkyWest Airlines over Great Lakes despite SkyWest's more expensive bid. Operating as United Express, the carrier will begin transporting passengers July 1 from Hays on 12 weekly nonstop, round-trip flights to Denver.
Great Lakes' lack of reliability has been the source of discontent among city staff and passengers.
Its average monthly rate for canceled and delayed flights from December to February was 61 percent, and only 8 percent of passengers in the airport's target area were flying out of Hays.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who was in Hays on Saturday for an event, said he worked to encourage the DOT to make the carrier decision in a timely manner. The federal department chose SkyWest on Friday afternoon.
"What I was being told was we're telling customers not to book flights because we don't know what air service, if any, we're going to have a month from now," Moran said.
Locally, the news was met with relief.
"We are extremely pleased with DOT's choice of SkyWest," said Toby Dougherty, Hays city manager. "We think this is something that's going to take our airport to the next level -- a level, quite frankly, Great Lakes wasn't able to take us to."
A 50-passenger regional jet on a "very dependable airline" and the connection with a major carrier will provide a "stellar" travel outlet for the public, he said. SkyWest's projected ticket fares also are cheaper than Great Lakes.
"I think, the new carrier, with better equipment, more reliable service along with the expansion and remodel at the terminal that's in the design phase now that'll be taking place shortly ... this is the catalyst event that is going to take the Hays Regional Airport to the next level," he said.
Other communities such as Garden City and Manhattan have had "dramatic leaps" in passenger loads after upgrading to a regional jet service, and Hays is poised to take the same step, Dougherty said.
More changes await the airport. Making restrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, maintenance issues and enlarging the security area will be considered at the city commission's April 3 work session.
Conversations with the airline about the transition will happen soon, and travelers should be able to check United Airlines' website for information on tickets out of Hays in the coming weeks.
In light of Great Lakes withdrawing from Great Bend Municipal Airport, Dougherty said he was not aware if the carrier intends to cancel service in Hays before SkyWest starts.
Aaron White, executive director of the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, said his group was prepared to contribute $50,000 if the DOT asked the city to bridge the gap between the two carriers' bids. The subsidy will not be needed.
A viable airport is an economic issue for his group, considering the importance of travel for businesses.
"Reliable air service is really important for the community," White said. "We see a lot of folks coming in and out, businesses who might be looking at the community or that are already here. We do have a couple that have cross-country needs."