Utah-based SkyWest Airlines will end its service from Hays to Chicago in March, but more seats will be added to direct flights between Hays and Denver.

The net result, said Hays City Administrator Toby Dougherty, should be a wash, or better, for city-owned Hays Regional Airport.

For the past 18 months, the Bombardier CRJ200 flying to and from Denver has originated in Salina, stopped in Hays to board passengers, then flown on to Denver. The return flight worked the same way.

“The airlines call that a tag route, and so they’re decoupling the two communities, so they’ll each be served with a separate plane,” Dougherty said Tuesday during a media briefing at City Hall, 1507 Main.

“It will mean we have more seats coming out of Hays, which we think is going to help us,” he said.

It isn't uncommon now to see SkyWest’s 50-seat regional jet arrive in Hays on its way to Denver with 25 passengers already boarded from Salina.

“That means there are 25 seats left in Hays,” Dougherty said. “We think that there could be, on some of those flights, the potential for 30 to 40 passengers out of Hays, but there are only 25 available seats. So it means we’ll see a significant increase in the number of seats available.”

Hays Regional Airport in 2018 hit a record number of boardings, totaling 12,032 passengers. The numbers for 2019 show the airport is on track to break that record, already reaching 13,279 boardings through November, a 23.94% increase year-to-date.

Chicago flights are such a small amount of the airport’s traffic, Dougherty said, so the loss of that single flight a day isn’t expected to affect the airport.

“We’re hoping that after an adjustment period that it’s a wash, or that we actually increase,” Dougherty said. “We and the airline both feel that we’ve left seats on the table.”

Service to Hays is part of the U.S. government’s Essential Air Service program. North American regional airline SkyWest has a contract with the Department of Transportation to provide 12 flights a week between Hays and Denver International Airport. SkyWest is one of eight regional airlines to fly feeder flights under the brand United Express.

SkyWest added Chicago service on its own to see how it would fare.

“Our community didn’t really utilize that Chicago plane,” Dougherty said. “It’s my understanding the Salina community really took to the Chicago flight and really utilized it pretty heavily.”

Any given month in 2019, the Chicago leg out of Hays boarded from 97 passengers to 232, compared to more than 1,000 headed for Denver.

“It’s pretty hard to run a plane through here for 200 passengers a month,” Dougherty said. “I used the Chicago flight twice; I used it to go see my daughter in Syracuse as the back route, and it was pretty empty both times.”

Meanwhile, passengers trying to book flights to Denver would find seats weren’t always available out of Hays because the plane was already full.

Starting in March, SkyWest will give Hays 13 flights in and out, with two a day Sunday through Friday and one flight in and out on Saturdays, Dougherty said.

Travelers out of Hays over the years have adjusted to flying west to Denver, a hub for United Airlines, instead of east to Kansas City, even when destined east, because nonstop flights out of Denver can beat a one-stop flight out of Kansas City.

“Your travel times are either the same or shorter out of Denver,” Dougherty said. “So I think as people have adapted to Denver they’ve realized the capability of that airport, and Denver just keeps adding nonstops. Denver is one of the largest hubs, one of the largest airports in the United States, with the most destinations.”

Denver International Airport has 215 nonstop destinations, including 180 in the United States, according to information provided by the airport. In 2018 it set a traffic record with almost 64.5 million passengers.

Kansas City International has nonstop flights to 54 cities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Iceland, the airport has reported. It had 11.8 million passengers in 2018.

Hays Regional Airport for 2019 so far totaled 11,391 passengers boarding flights destined for Denver, and 1,888 for Chicago.

No other destinations are being considered out of Hays right now.

“Nothing I can talk about,” Dougherty said. “We’ve explored some other options, but nothing is economically viable right now.”