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City aims to bridge gap in airline bids

12/22/2013

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

If the community presents a compelling argument for SkyWest Airlines to become Hays Regional Airport's carrier in May 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation might choose its higher bid over Great Lakes Airlines.

Great Lakes had two bids of $1.7 million and $1.5 million, and SkyWest's proposal was $2.3 million.

The DOT might ask the city to make up the difference between bids, said Toby Dougherty, Hays City manager. Three local organizations already have offered to make a contribution if that is the case.

Several city construction projects during the years have cost less than budgeted, and the city can apply those savings to the gap in bids. However, the city commission typically would put that money toward future projects.

"That's part of the reason we reached out to the other entities, saying, 'Look, you have a vested interest as well in maintaining a healthy airport out here,' ... that shows the community itself that we have a lot of buy-in to do something different out here," Dougherty said.

The groups' support might not be necessary if the city persuades the DOT paying more for SkyWest would be an investment that would lead to a new era at the airport.

"They said that they want the community to lay out their reasons why the DOT should select SkyWest over Great Lakes ... if there is a need for a subsidy, they will call us and we will talk about it at that time," Dougherty said.

Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development and Hays Medical Center both have pledged $50,000, and the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce has committed $25,000. The sums would be paid in monthly installments during the carrier's two-year contract.

Aaron White, executive director of the coalition, said the contribution reflects the vital role the airport fills.

"This is definitely a worthwhile endeavor," White said.

"People are excited about the possibility of replacing Great Lakes Airlines," Dougherty said.

He presented a draft of a letter from the city to the DOT at the Hays City Commission's meeting Thursday. It addressed the city's grievances with Great Lakes.

"We are at risk of our local air service going into a permanent decline if Great Lakes were to continue to provide it," the letter stated. "The impact of such an event upon our economy is very great and it is critical that we avoid that outcome."

The airline's failure to provide reliable air service and its lack of communication with the city were among the complaints in the letter. Sixty-five percent of its scheduled flights at the Hays airport were on time in 2013, and 15 percent of scheduled flights were canceled from January to November, according to the letter.

Dougherty also will solicit letters of support from the chamber, the coalition, HaysMed and Fort Hays State University.