For the first time in its history, the number of paying passengers flying commercial jets out of Hays Regional Airport in a year has hit 12,000.

Not only was 2018 a record year, but December 2018 was an all-time record month for boardings, said airport manager Ovid Seifers. There were 1,316 paying passengers flying out who originated from Hays.

“Normally May is the best month, with graduations and vacations, but this year December was stronger,” Seifers said.

SkyWest Airlines, through the regional branch of United Airlines’ United Express, offers flights to Denver International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

SkyWest’s 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets fly daily from the easy-access terminal at the general aviation airport located 3 miles southeast of Hays.

Flights to Chicago only started April 9, 2018, but 1,300 passengers flew there in 2018, Seifers said. He attributes the record year in December and in 2018 to a good mindset for travel.

“A good number of passengers went because it’s a direct flight to Chicago,” Seifers said. “When people feel good, they travel more.”

The Hays-O’Hare flight makes a brief 30-minute stopover in Salina.

“From Hays, you can go a lot of places anywhere domestically, and with one-stop around the world,” he said. “It’s sort of one-stop shopping to go anywhere from western Kansas to the world.”

Easy destinations include places as far flung as Tokyo, Frankfurt, London, Honolulu, Hawaii, Anchorage, and even Reykjavik, Iceland, said Seifers.

“The world’s not as big as it used to be,” he said, and people can make use of the promotional fairs SkyWest is offering now by booking in February for flights up to May, excluding Spring Break blackout dates.

Roundtrip to O’Hare or Denver is $179, he said.

Those boardings will result in greater access to Federal Aviation Administration money for airport improvements, according to Jesse Rohr, director of Public Works for the city, who reported on the airport to the city commission at their regular meeting Jan. 3.

“As a reminder, achieving 10,000 or more in boardings, makes the Hays airport eligible for up to $1 million in discretionary funds from the

FAA, with the city responsible for 10 percent of those project costs,” Rohr said.

That being the case, the city should have sufficient money for its 2019 projects and beyond, he said.

The city works from its Airport Capital Improvement plan, created with the Federal Aviation Administration to access federal funding for improvements. The proposed five-year-plan defines airport priorities for 2020 through 2024 and includes six projects in all.

In 2018, the city completed wildlife fencing to keep out deer and other critters, and rehabilitation of Taxiway I. For 2018 and 2019, projects in the works include concrete work on the apron and buying snow removal equipment for the first time.

Beyond the five-year plan are long-range plans, required by the FAA, which will be submitted to the FAA in January.

“These are kind of out there, kind of place holders,” Rohr told the commissioners. “Most of them aren’t new to the plan, and do eventually make their way up the list.”

Among the projects is new edge lighting for the crosswinds runway, Runway 422, estimated at $960,000. That would replace the existing direct-buried system, which is nearing the end of its 15- to 20-year service life.

Constructed in 2003, the runway is going on 16 to 17 years, and probably will be 18 years old before it’s replaced.

“The runway lighting, because of the type of buried system it is, is prone to damage from burrowing animals, natural erosion, or possible accidental damage,” Rohr said. “Installing new cabling in conduit, with new light-based cans, prevents unpredictable outages and aids in troubleshooting.”

The system would include new upgraded, energy-efficient LED’s as well.

A second project is design of Taxiway M in 2021, estimated at about $400,000, with the city paying 10 percent.

Taxiway M runs parallel to the main runway, and is the airport’s main taxiway. It’s showing visible durability cracking and basically failed pavement areas, Rohr said, shortening the life of the runway. The project would call for repairs to failed areas, replacing most of it, and possibly

widening it to better accommodate large aircraft.

While there might be short term one-day interruption in service, Rohr said the goal is to keep the airport and runway operating as much as possible.

In 2022, the city expects to develop a new airport Master Plan, estimated at $350,000, for infrastructure planning.

“The last Master Plan was completed in 2009 and current planned infrastructure projects will be complete after the reconstruction of Taxiway M,” Rohr said.

Construction of Taxiway M would also follow in 2022, at a cost of just over $5 million.

“The city did apply for supplemental funding, through the omnibus funding bill, that, if awarded, could cover this particular project at 100 percent, saving the city an estimated $500,000 in our 10 percent share,” Rohr said. “That application is pending. It could be awarded in ‘19, it could be awarded in ‘20. We’ll see how that falls in the priority.”

City officials expect SkyWest will at some point phase out it’s CRJ 200s and replace them with larger 72-seat Bombardier CRJ 700s.

Although runway length is still a limitation for some large jets, widening the existing 35-foot taxiway to 50 foot would accommodate the larger plane, Rohr said.

“The taxiway would enable our airport to utilize the larger planes that they are going to be putting in their fleet,” Rohr said. “It would be really touch and go right now whether or not they could get larger planes on our taxiway.”

An existing 1996 front-end loader, used for snow-blowing and plowing, will also need replaced eventually, estimated at $250,000.

Finally, in five or six years the airport may need a building to house snow and other equipment so it’s ready for use, estimated at $1 million.