The Hays Regional Airport received good news last week. The U.S. Department of Transportation approved the city’s biannual request for an Essential Air Service subsidy, which ensures SkyWest Airlines will continue offering two daily flights for the next two years.
But as reported by City Manager Toby Dougherty, DOT apparently isn’t all that happy about how much the regular subsidy is this time — $3.5 million. The subsidy is more than twice what DOT pays for service in both Dodge City and Liberal, and almost four times what it pays for Garden City’s flights.
The reason? Not enough passengers are using the Hays airport.
“The reality is it costs a lot of money to fly a jet between here and Denver twice a day,” Dougherty told city commissioners at Thursday’s meeting. “And so the more passengers they can put on that plane, the less their subsidy is.”
When SkyWest took over the Hays routes two years ago, it was hoping to achieve 15,000 boardings annually even though 10,000 boardings would have been considered great in the past. Given the sporadic flight schedule and less-than-stellar customer service Hays passengers had been treated to by the previous carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, SkyWest’s goal might have been a bit optimistic. So many area residents had been turned off by their experience, they began driving to other airports to begin round-trip flights. Particularly after Great Lakes simply quit the routes in 2014 and left Hays without any service for a few months.
SkyWest, which flies for United Airlines, did prove its product was superior to Great Lakes. On-time arrivals and departures improved dramatically and by all reports the customer service did as well.
Still, there were only about 8,000 boardings last year. Some 9,500 are projected for this year. The numbers aren’t close to what SkyWest or the city was expecting. That prompted the carrier to remove the early morning flight, which is compounding the problem.
If more passengers don’t start utilizing the Hays airport, the service available today could change in two years. By that point, DOT might find the required subsidy amount to be too high or SkyWest itself might decline to bid on the route. Either way, Ellis County could be heading back to a level of service that impressed nobody in the past.
It doesn’t have to end up that way. But it will require serious brainstorming to determine a competitive advantage for the Hays airport to exploit.
We’re hard-pressed to imagine what that might be as the current configuration results in passengers paying more for longer travel times when flying Hays. For comparison, we attempted to book a round-trip flight to Boston in the middle of July using Hays and Wichita as starting points. Both airports are serviced by United Airlines — actually SkyWest dba United Express in Hays and GoJet Airlines or ExpressJet Airlines dba United Express in Wichita.
The cheapest economy seat available from Hays was $423. Departing Hays at 5:55 p.m. Monday, the passenger would take a 12-hour, 28-minute journey through Denver and Newark, N.J., before arriving in Boston at 7:23 a.m. Tuesday.
From Wichita, one could leave at 6:10 a.m. Monday and arrive in Boston at 12:20 p.m. the same day after a plane change in Chicago. The price: $188.
Such a scenario is not uncommon. At Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Henry Schwaller said he was aware of one large Hays institution that has started capping employee travel costs and are advising their workers to use Wichita instead of Hays. While anecdotal, such a restriction appears valid when comparing costs and travel time.
Somehow, the economic equation needs to be altered. Getting the early morning flight restored is critical to making connections that could satisfy the time disadvantage. Lowering prices appears more of a challenge.
Fortunately, the city commission has at least a year to devise a solution before preparing the next Essential Air Service bid. Elected leaders just might discover after surveying both the business community and the general public that the Hays area itself doesn’t believe the service is essential. Our recommendation would be to let data guide the next step.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry