Three regional commuter airlines have bid to replace hugely popular SkyWest Airlines as North Platte’s federally subsidized provider of round-trip Denver air service.
The North Platte Airport Authority board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday to review proposals by Northern Pacific Airways, which would fly 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft, and Boutique Air and Southern Airways Express, both offering to fly small turbo-props of less than 10 passengers.
Northern Pacific, more commonly known as Ravn Alaska, says it would link Denver International Airport with both Lee Bird Field and the Kearney Regional Airport. Southern’s and Boutique’s bids would connect North Platte and Denver alone.
Airport Manager Sam Seafeldt said Friday that Kearney’s airport board also would have to accept Ravn Alaska, the only North Platte bidder proposing to link multiple Nebraska airports with DIA.
North Platte, Kearney and the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff all now are served by SkyWest, which cited a chronic pilot shortage stemming from COVID-19 disruptions in filing March 10 to cancel EAS service to all three and 26 other airports in 15 states.
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The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered SkyWest a day later to continue its federally subsidized DIA service to those cities until new EAS carriers for them could be secured. The St. George, Utah-based airline flies under the United Express banner in Nebraska.
SkyWest began serving North Platte on Feb. 1, 2018, flying 50-seat jets to and from DIA after a 34-year succession of EAS carriers had struggled to fill far smaller commuter planes.
Local and regional passengers have flocked to SkyWest ever since, flying to and from Denver in numbers not seen since the original Frontier Airlines ended a long run at Lee Bird in 1984. Utah-based SkyWest stressed in March that it didn’t want to quit North Platte and other EAS cities but felt forced to by its pilot staffing issues.
After cutting its weekly North Platte schedule during March to 10 flights to or from DIA — also citing the pilot shortage — SkyWest in April launched a modified schedule of 12 flights per week linking Denver and Lee Bird.
The carrier still has a daily early-morning takeoff and evening arrival, but they now link Denver and North Platte through Scottsbluff. SkyWest also offers a direct midday round trip to and from DIA Thursdays through Mondays.
Western Nebraska Regional Airport board members Wednesday rejected EAS bids from both Boutique and Southern, Scottsbluff radio station KNEB-AM reported. They were the only ones the Scottsbluff airport received for a successor to SkyWest.
Boutique’s and Southern’s proposed aircraft “were nice, and the price points were good,” Raul Aguallo, the Scottsbluff airport manager, told the station. “The problem is, if we choose one of these aircraft, we’ll probably never be able to go back to a twin-engine (aircraft) again.”
While Scottsbluff seeks other options, SkyWest must continue to link its airport with Denver through no later than year’s end, KNEB’s story added.
RAVN Alaska’s North Platte bid says it would use 50-seat Dash 8-300s, a twin-engine turbo-prop, to fly two round trips a day linking Lee Bird and DIA. The early-morning flight would originate in Kearney, and the late-night flight arriving in North Platte would go on to Kearney.
The 14 weekly takeoffs and landings at North Platte would be two more than under SkyWest’s current schedule.
Boutique’s North Platte bid calls for flying Pilatus PC-12s, used in the millennium’s first decade by now-defunct Westward Airways when it tried to revive the “river run” linking Scottsbluff, North Platte, Lincoln and Omaha.
The single-engine PC-12 can be configured for either eight or nine passengers, according to Boutique’s bid specifications. The San Francisco-based carrier would seek a two-year EAS contract to serve North Platte, offering 21 round trips a week to and from DIA.
Southern, based in Palm Beach, Florida, says it uses nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft for most EAS flights and PC-12s in some cases. Its North Platte bid calls for 24 Denver round trips each week.