Jihwan Lee and Hyeongi Ahn were at Hays Regional Airport late Wednesday morning, waiting to catch the 12:10 p.m. SkyWest flight to Denver.
Scheduled to return to South Korea, their special exchange program at Fort Hays State University was cut short by coronavirus after only two months.
“So sad to be going back,” Lee said.
From Denver International Airport, the two were scheduled to fly to Seattle, then Seoul, then their hometowns in South Korea. For Lee, that’s Ulsan, and for Ahn, it’s Changwon.
“It just happened, we can’t stay,” said Ahn. “It’s more comfortable, if I get coronavirus in South Korea I have insurance, and there’s my parents to take care of me.”
Ahn and Lee were catching one of the city-owned airport’s 13 regularly scheduled commercial passenger flights in a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet. There are two-a-day flights Sunday through Friday, and one on Saturdays. For now, flights out of Hays Regional Airport continue as before.
But passenger boardings in 2020 won’t set a record like they did in 2018 and 2019.
The record number of boardings in 2018 totaled 12,032 passengers. Then 2019 broke that record, with more than 13,280.
The major U.S. airlines are cutting back their domestic flights anywhere from 50% to 75%, said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty.
“Right now airports are a critical business,” Dougherty said. “Commercial passengers are still coming in and out, but I expect those to decrease in frequency.”
Flights out of Hays are subsidized by the federal government, Dougherty said. United Airlines and its contracted regional carrier, Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, are required to fly a minimum of 12 flights a week. A temporary order from the DOT could reduce that number, which Dougherty expects to see happen.
“Yesterday, the second flight, the plane came in empty and left empty,” Dougherty said. “I don’t think anyone expects an airline to fly an empty plane.”
Last week, however, there were still 20 to 30 passengers flying out every day, including six students returning to South Korea on Friday.
That will change quickly if the DOT issues an order, Dougherty said, although he expects some level of service to continue.
“I don’t think they would eliminate it,” he said.
For now, United is still taking bookings out of Hays through its web site.
Traveling through so many airports to return to South Korea, Ahn and Lee said their country will require they self-quarantine for 14 days once they arrive. They will be taking their Fort Hays classes online, like other students all over Kansas who were sent home early by the COVID-19 threat, which shut down physical attendance.
“The international students have the freedom to stay on campus, “ said Lisa Bell, a Fort Hays instructor of English and English as a Second Language, who helped take Ahn and Lee to the airport. “But we do have quite a few who their families want them to come home.”
Other operations at the airport continue as usual, said Chris Springer, general manager for Hays Aircraft, the fixed base operator that sells fuel and does maintenance on private aircraft from a hangar at the airport. Those services remain, as well as flight instruction and chartered planes, Springer said.
“We’re going to stay open as long as we can,” he said.
Hays Regional Airport also is home to the Kansas Highway Patrol’s only air division in western Kansas, as well as air ambulance Eagle Med, and UPS, which flies in cargo six times a week.
“People are still wanting their aircraft maintained,” Springer said. “We schedule things out like a doctor’s office.”
Aviation fuel prices, like those at the retail pump, continue dropping lower, he said, including Wednesday.
“As long as people are still flying,” he said, “we’re going to stay here.”