BY KAREN LA PIERRE

klapierre@dailynews.net

It has been an eventful year at the Hays Regional Airport.

Great Lakes Airline exited Hays in March, leaving the community with no air service for four months.

SkyWest, which flies for United Airlines, took over Aug. 1 with flights each day to and from Denver.

Since SkyWest started flying, the passengers using the airline have steadily increased over last year during the same period.

"We are very happy with the service United Express is providing," said Toby Dougherty, Hays city manger. "The equipment, reliability, and communications are all top-notch.  

"The feedback we have received from passengers has been very positive.  Passenger numbers are growing steadily and we are on track to our best year ever in 2015."  

In December, it was announced Sky West will have some upcoming changes in its schedule.

"We were not happy about the schedule change and will work to get a better schedule implemented ASAP," said Dougherty. "The schedule may not be optimal, but the experience for the flying passengers will still be a good one."

The new schedule, effective in March, will call for a later morning departure, at approximately 10 a.m., from Hays because of the airline's change in its fleet of jets, Dougherty said at the December City Commission meeting.

During the month of February there will be no morning flights at all from Hays, but there will be two afternoon flights.

The numbers of passengers were: August: 2013 - 571; 2014 -729; September: 2013 - 585; 2014 - 818; October: 2013 - 645; 2014 - 947; and November: 2013 - 646; 2014 - 932.

The city also began construction work at the airport in August, holding a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate renovation -- the first in two decades.

Changes include an expanded security area, and secure waiting area, new bathrooms, roofing and heating and air conditioning.

The completion date is set for February.

The Hays City Commission will contribute $466,400, and the federal government will pitch in $918,000.

The plane flown to Denver is a CRJ-200 -- a 50 seat passenger jet that is quieter than a turbo prop, said Nathan Marcucci, airport manager.

There are advantages to flying out of Hays. From Denver, "you can connect everywhere," worldwide, said Nathan Marcucci.

"A lot of people ask me, why do I have to go west to go east."

He mentioned other advantages as well. There is no gas spent on long drives to big cities, valuable personal time wasted, and energy spent on fighting huge crowds. Plus, there are no long waits to get on the airplane at Hays.

Also, "there's free parking," for passengers, said Marcucci.

Passengers can be dropped off at the front door and only have to walk a short distance for a boarding pass, be screened and wait for the flight.

Marcucci looked up the cost of a flight to Denver in March, 2015. A round trip ticket would be $204.

Flights to and from Hays are considered essential air service and are subsidized by the Department of Transportation. Any flights after connecting to Denver would be an additional fee.

Reliability is also important.

"In my experience, they are an airline that doesn't seem to cancel for no good reason," said Marcucci.

"A lot of times when they do cancel, it's related to weather," he said. "It might be a perfectly sunny day here, but it's really bad in Denver."

But, there are some things to consider when packing.

"The overhead bins are somewhat smaller," said Marcucci.

United Airline uses current technology for online access to flight information. An app allows for online check-in 24 hours in advance, as well as text message alerts regarding gate changes in Denver.

Crosswind Runway

Also in airport news, the crosswind runway at the airport is in need of rehabilitation. It was constructed in 2003 by Castle Rock Co. of Topeka and is used for smaller planes.

It is not used for SkyWest jets. The SkyWest jets use the larger north-south runway for commercial air travel. The Federal Aviation Administration has listed the runway as a priority. The runway shows signs of cracking, settling, joint issues, subsurface issues and chipping.

"I, personally, am surprised we've had to do this amount of maintenance on the runway at this point," said John Braun, assistant director of Public Works told the Hays City Commission in November. The total cost for rehabilitation would be $763,400, with the city's portion totaling $76,340. FAA would fund the remaining $687,060.

Finally, the Hays City Commission is considering adding a $4.50 passenger facilitation charge to every airplane ticket, which has to be approved by the FAA. The money will fund airport projects.

Flights can be booked at united.com.