North Platte’s federally subsidized passenger air service to and from Denver will continue to be provided by SkyWest Airlines for the time being.
The North Platte Airport Authority board Monday unanimously recommended federal rejection of all three bids from carriers seeking to replace SkyWest as the airport’s Essential Air Service provider.
The Utah-based carrier, citing chronic pilot shortages, filed March 10 to drop EAS service at Lee Bird Field and 28 other U.S. airports in 15 states.
The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered SkyWest the next day to maintain its service until a new EAS carrier is found.
That “hold-in” order remains in place, said Airport Authority Chairman Alan Erickson and Airport Manager Sam Seafeldt.
After the vote, local SkyWest General Manager Brian Grandy told the board his airline intends to boost its North Platte United Express service to two daily direct round trips starting July 12.
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A tentative schedule provided by Grandy shows daily North Platte arrivals from Denver International Airport at 9:44 a.m. and 5:34 p.m. CT. Return flights to DIA would leave at 10:20 a.m. and 6:09 p.m. respectively.
SkyWest’s direct mid-morning Denver round trip has been limited to Thursdays through Mondays since April. The carrier’s daily round trip has left for DIA in the early morning and returned in the late evening.
The tentative new schedule would drop any stopovers in both directions at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff.
Fully regaining direct Denver flights and going from 12 to 14 weekly takeoffs and landings “will be a big plus in the minds of (local) people” considering flying rather than driving to DIA, Erickson said.
Tuesday’s 5-0 Airport Authority vote disapproved of bids by Boutique Air, Southern Airways Express and Ravn Alaska (Northern Pacific Airways) to take over the Lee Bird-to-DIA EAS route.
Both Boutique and Southern proposed to fly the route with nine-seat, single-engine aircraft similar to those used by a procession of local EAS carriers before SkyWest.
Ravn Alaska offered to fly twice daily to and from Denver with 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft. But its early-morning flight would have originated in Kearney, with its late-night flight ending there as well.
Based on talks with Kearney Regional Airport leaders, “they’re not interested in (Ravn Alaska’s) operation or partnering with us,” Erickson told board members.
Meanwhile, he added, Boutique’s and Southern’s nine-seater proposals would be “a step backward” from SkyWest’s 50-seat jet service to and from DIA.
Scottsbluff’s airport board members spoke similarly in voting May 18 to recommend rejection of its own EAS proposals from Boutique and Southern. Ravn Alaska did not bid to serve Scottsbluff.
Seafeldt, who participated Tuesday by phone from Washington state, said it’s up to the U.S. DOT to officially reject North Platte’s three EAS bids. But it’s likely the agency will do so, he added.
The March “hold-in” order, Seafeldt said, extends SkyWest’s EAS service on a month-to-month basis while North Platte’s next subsidized carrier remains unknown.
The federal DOT is expected to take bids for North Platte’s next regular EAS contract in September, he added. SkyWest’s current three-year contract was set to expire Jan. 31.
Erickson told the board that SkyWest is exploring an alternative that would keep serving North Platte with Bombardier jets, but with up to 30 passengers instead of 50.
Seafeldt said SkyWest presented its idea to North Platte airport leaders Friday. Lee Bird’s existing carrier, he added, was the “unidentified airline” he had referred to in disclosing plans for the meeting last month.
Erickson said SkyWest’s alternative would have it operate under a different section of federal regulations. That section caps passenger loads at 30 but allows less experienced copilots alongside senior pilots.
That ideally would help SkyWest cope with its pilot shortage, Erickson told Airport Authority members.
“They’re optimistic, but I’m not sure they’re realistic,” he added.
Seafeldt said SkyWest is expected to let airport leaders know by June 24 whether it decides to pursue the 30-seat alternative.
“And still it’s up to the DOT to approve that,” he said. “That’s not something they can do on their own. They’d need support from the DOT and the airport.”
The airport board would rather keep SkyWest and its current 50-seat service on the North Platte-to-Denver route, Erickson said later Tuesday.
“We like SkyWest. They’ve put us into the next generation of what we’re doing here,” he said. “Our economy’s coming up. We need them. We don’t want to go backward.”