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Flying Hays, again

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Flying isn't for everybody. There are significant numbers of people who would rather drive, there are many who fear being in an airplane, and cost simply makes it prohibitive for a lot of American families.

Look at Hays Regional Airport. A good year traffic-wise is when emplanements exceed 10,000. That is roughly half the population of the city -- and there is no way 50 percent of the citizenry flies once a year. The number of Haysites who regularly utilize air travel is likely closer to 1,000, and these individuals fly repeatedly.

For these passengers, having a full-service airport is more than mere convenience. It is a business necessity. Health care, education, energy, oil and gas, tourism and multiple export-oriented companies all benefit from departures and arrivals that require only a 10-minute drive to complete the journey.

Hays Regional Airport is a critical component of the local economy.

Which is why there is steadfast commitment from both local and federal governments to keeping the facility operating. Congress regularly funds the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes carriers to fly in and out of Ellis County. The federal government also helps pay for upgrades and improvements to buildings and grounds.

The city of Hays does its part by picking up a fair share of those renovations, by staffing the airport, providing public safety, and continued lobbying of public and private partners to ensure operations run smoothly.

Last week, those attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony got to see the latest physical improvements. Modernized facilities, including the lounge, security areas and restrooms, received much more than a fresh coat of paint to make the airport more attractive. A $1.6 million upgrade also included the roof, as well as heating and air-conditioning systems.

"We are on a string of improvements to bring this facility up to par and make us competitive in the regional marketplace," said Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller IV.

He is correct. In 2013, the 6,500-foot primary landing strip was redone in a manner that allowed larger commercial aircraft. Plans are in place to redo the cross-wind runway as well.

With people willing to fly and governmental units working hard to provide the facilities necessary, the only remaining component to account for is the carrier itself. One might think a $2 million stipend would have airlines circling Hays in hopes of landing the contract. That just isn't the reality in the multi-billion-dollar industry.

Dissatisfied with the service provided by Great Lakes Airline, which drove off customers with its unreliable schedule, the city negotiated to obtain a better partner last year. SkyWest, which flies for United Airlines, stepped up to the tarmac. The new carrier nixed the Kansas City flight, but offered two daily trips to Denver where connections to the nation and world were readily available. Particularly popular was the early-morning departure, which allowed maximum access to wherever local travelers needed to go.

Encouraged, local passengers renewed their faith in Hays Regional Airport and began flying in greater numbers. Unfortunately, 16-percent increases were not the 50-percent mark SkyWest was seeking. Economics prompted the carrier to drop the morning flight, replacing it with a second afternoon run. Local passengers were not impressed, nor should they have been. When a one-way trip to a major U.S. city takes 18 hours or more to complete, the convenience factor disappears.

SkyWest will resume the morning flight this month. While it won't be the ideal 6:50 a.m. time slot, the 10 a.m. departure should allow better-than-average connectivity in Denver.

While we wholeheartedly disagree with the games carriers appear to play with this market, it is at least our turn at this point. And it could be a pivotal moment for the future of Hays Regional Airport.

The flying public needs to get back onboard with the notion of flying Hays. We need to forgive the sins of the past and recommit to utilizing the local facility. At some point, if we can't produce enough passengers, even the federal government will begin to question our status as essential. We need to prove it.

We challenge all potential passengers, whether for business or leisure, to originate all air travel at Hays Regional Airport. SkyWest is about to make that decision easier with the resumption of morning flights. It is up to us to show all the investments and improvements were worthwhile.

Just remember the two-word slogan developed by the marketing committee: Fly Hays.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry


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