If commercial jet service at Hays Regional Airport is going to be successful long-term, more people will have to fly Hays. That was the message City Manager Toby Dougherty shared with Hays city commissioners at Thursday’s meeting.
The Federal Department of Transportation on Wednesday issued an order that will retain SkyWest Airlines as Hays’ commercial jet service for another two years. But the federal subsidy required to continue that service was nearly $3.5 million, significantly higher than the subsidies required for Kansas’ other airports that are part of the Essential Air Service program.
“The reality is it costs a lot of money to fly a jet between here and Denver twice a day,” Dougherty said. “And so the more passengers they can put on that plane, the less their subsidy is.”
When SkyWest began providing service two years ago, it anticipated achieving 15,000 boardings annually. The numbers have fallen significantly short of that, with approximately 8,000 boardings last year and a projected 9,500 this year, Dougherty said.
The airport will only be eligible for EAS subsidy if the average amount of federal reimbursement per passenger is less than $1,000. The EAS program is what enables small communities such as Hays to offer commercial air service.
In comparison to Hays’ $3.5 million subsidy, Dodge City and Liberal each received approximately $1.6 million. Garden City required only approximately $970,000 due to higher boarding numbers, Dougherty said, noting that airport provides service to Dallas, which is a longer flight.
The high subsidy amount for Hays this year is problematic, especially since the bid is based on low fuel costs, he said.
“The bid of $3.4 million is a reflection of low oil prices right now. If the low oil prices were more in a normalized range, we probably would have seen the bid a lot higher,” Dougherty said of the subsidy amounts. “I don’t know if DOT (Department of Transportation) could have taken it.”
The only way to secure the future of commercial air service in Hays is for more people to fly, he said.
“We have a two-year window here with a great carrier, with good equipment and reliable, dependable service, and I’m asking the flying public to please check the Hays Regional Airport before you make accommodations somewhere else,” Dougherty said.
Commissioner James Meier asked what could happen if passenger numbers continue to lag during the next two years. Dougherty said it’s possible the required subsidy amount would be too high, or SkyWest could decline to bid.
Several other airlines submitted proposals for commercial air service in Hays, including the city’s former carrier, Great Lakes. Great Lakes provided flights to Denver until 2014, but the service often caused discontent among local travelers due to frequent flight delays and cancellations.
“I’m glad SkyWest is there, but I think we should have a frank and open conversation about the status of the airport and what it could be in two years,” Meier said. “There are businesses in the area that have communicated with me the importance of the airport and the importance of commercial air service. It just seems to me that the numbers are not reflecting those businesses are utilizing the service.”
The lack of an early morning flight has been cited as a possible reason some customers choose not to fly locally. The most desirable flight schedules are given to cities with the higher boarding numbers, Meier said, noting he already has asked Dougherty about the possibility of combining air service with another community, such as Kearney, Neb.
“It’s either use it, and try to get to 15,000 passengers so we can get an early morning flight, or don’t use it, and realize we may not have commercial service,” he said. “Or if we do have commercial air service, it’s going to be Great Lakes again.”
Cost is also an issue, Commissioner Henry Schwaller said, noting he is aware of one large Hays institution that has started capping employee travel costs. Those employees are advised not to look at the Hays airport, as it is often less expensive to fly through Wichita, he said.
“That’s pretty bad, and it hurts us a lot,” Schwaller said. “And that’s where the traffic comes from. If business professionals are not using it, we’re not going to have a chance.”
Vice Mayor Shaun Musil said he is hopeful boarding numbers could increase as oil prices rise and the local economy rebounds.
“Right now, everybody’s been cutting back,” Musil said. “I think it’s going to turn around; it’s just going to take time. Hopefully, we have time.”