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SPOTLIGHT
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Airport decision

Published on -12/15/2013, 3:20 PM

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Tracking the on-time records of airlines as well as the no-shows is pertinent information when determining performance. Yet the numbers are merely that -- numbers.

Great Lakes Airlines might find ways to rationalize its abysmal 58-percent on-time-arrival rate at Hays Regional Airport during the past year, but that does nothing for a family that finds itself without an aircraft to begin a holiday excursion. Planning all the details of an itinerary, purchasing tickets in advance, even arriving at the airport two hours early -- only to find they can't fly Hays because Great Lakes has another pilot shortage or unscheduled maintenance to perform. It is enough to drive a family crazy. Not only do they need to drive to Denver and hope they can make a connection, potentially ruining the get-away, that family likely won't attempt to use the local airport again.

That's not good for business. Or for the community.

The airport and city of Hays have limited options available to prod the airline into better performance. Local threats tend to receive lip service as it isn't up to the municipality whose planes grace the runways. The U.S. Department of Transportation decides which airlines service which airports that are part of the federally funded Essential Air Service program.

If the DOT only considers bid amounts and promises submitted by the airlines, Hays will be stuck with Great Lakes Airlines for much longer than the current contract that ends in April. The airline said it only needs $1,499,508 to operate daily round-trip flights to Denver on a 30-passenger plane.

One other bid was submitted for consideration. SkyWest Airlines is offering 12 round-trip Denver flights per week on a 50-passenger jet -- at a cost of $2,253,132.

Bill Mosley, a public affairs specialist with the Department of Transportation, assured a Hays Daily News reporter price is not the only factor. DOT also evaluates a carrier's subsidy needs, service reliability, contract with a larger carrier, connection to national routes, marketing plan and the community's views.

Count us among the many who view Great Lakes as horrible. And we're attempting to be polite.

"The service we've gotten from Great Lakes has not been even basically adequate," said Hays Mayor Kent Steward.

City Manager Toby Dougherty described the service as a "disservice" and that "they have done nothing but go downhill. Their on-time percentage is atrocious. They are driving passengers away from our airport."

Numbers reinforce the attitudes of city officials. Boarding numbers are down 600 compared to last year. The Hays airport likely will have only 8,700 passengers depart in 2013, falling short of the magical 10,000 when federal support increases from $100,000 to $1 million. And Great Lakes boasted a 43-percent on-time rate for November, the last month prior to the bid-submission deadline.

It is obvious to many the Great Lakes' bid is ridiculously low in order to win the contract. The airline likely will recoup the cost in other ways, none of which bode well for improving their performance here.

The city recently cut the ribbon on a brand-new 6,500-foot runway. The $6.87 million project was paid for with 10-percent local tax dollars and the rest with Federal Aviation Administration money. The runway allows Hays to safely accept larger jets -- and different airlines. We would hope the Transportation Department allows our community to maximize that investment.

Currently, a mere 8 percent of people in the terminal's catchment area choose to fly Hays. That means the vast majority are willing to drive elsewhere to catch a flight, eschewing the convenience that should be a given. It simply isn't.

"This is not just about trying to find an incrementally better carrier, this is about the long-term viability of the airport," Dougherty said.

We hope the DOT eyes Hays Regional Airport in the same manner. We also hope the federal officials see through Great Lakes' low-ball bid. Hays needs a carrier it can depend on, not the least-expensive option that assures continued poor performance.

The federal government makes an investment with each contract awarded through the Essential Air Service program. It is time to invest with an airline that can offer a positive return. SkyWest is that airline.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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