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New era takes off at Hays airport

8/3/2014

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

SkyWest Airlines arrived 19 minutes early Friday for its debut at Hays Regional Airport.

Timeliness will be appreciated by area travelers in the wake of Great Lakes Airlines' tenure. The former carrier's cancellations and delays rate reached 61 percent before they ended their service early in March.

Almost as if silencing the criticism aimed at the airport for the struggles, a hush fell over the crowd in the terminal as the 50-passenger jet taxied away from the building. Vehicles were pulled over on the side of Old U.S. Highway 40 to see the new era take off.

The facility buzzed with excitement as travelers checked in and local leaders from across the community mingled. Although the airport's previous carrier was mentioned often, the future was in everyone's mind as they speculated how SkyWest would restore the airport and regain the travelers it lost.

Colleen Kopfman, a Munjor passenger on the inaugural flight, said she often travels to Nevada because she is retiring in Las Vegas for the weather. Not having commercial service at the airport since Great Lakes' departure was difficult for her.

"The last two months have been miserable," she said. "I live in Vegas half the time. For the last two months, I've had to drive to Denver, Wichita or Kansas City. It's annoying."

The former carrier's schedule woes impacted her travel experience.

"You never knew if they were going to fly or not," Kopfman said. "I'd get to Denver and there'd be a lot of times they'd wait until (night) to say, 'Oh, we're not flying,' and that was the last flight. So then I'm stuck in Denver overnight."

Owen Toepfer, a senior at Thomas More Prep-Marian High School, said he was flying to Sacramento, Calif., to visit his great-grandmother. Flying with Great Lakes was "kind of scary" because the 19-seater was small, he said.

"It was really stormy that day, and I didn't think we were going to touch down safely," he said of a previous flight.

Shaun Musil, Hays city commissioner, said SkyWest provided him, Commissioner Kent Steward and Hays Director of Public Works I.D. Creech with a flight to Denver to show its operations and help with word of mouth. The plane's smooth ride, flight attendant, free drink and bathroom made the trip a pleasant experience, he said.

"This airline, I think, is going to be huge for us," Musil said.

Paul Briseno, Hays assistant city manager, said the upgraded air service with a "reliable" carrier will add to the community's strong assets.

"I think it solidifies us as a regional hub," he said.

Tammy Wellbrock, executive director for the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has heard praise for SkyWest's ticket prices.

Traveling from Hays can be a cost-saving measure for employers.

"When you incorporate the time it takes to drive, and you're paying that hourly wage for a non-productive employee at the point because they're driving, let alone the extra cost possibly with parking and hotel," Wellbrock said. "For the business traveler, this is going to make a lot of economic sense."

Casual travelers also should consider the airport rather than assuming they have to drive several hours for a viable option, she said.

Dr. John Jeter, Hays Medical Center president and chief executive officer, said SkyWest will allow doctors, consultants and patients to reach Hays easier. He has booked a flight to Montana to fly-fish with his sons.

The airport will undergo its first major renovation since it was built in 1988 to accommodate the larger jet service. Expanding the secure waiting area, installing another bathroom, fixing the HVAC system and repairing the roof are among the improvements.