Friday, March 14, 2014

Great Bend Municipal Airport (KGBD) Kansas: Great Lakes to end air service a month early

Fate of next Essential Air Service provider remains unknown

 Cheyenne, Wyo.,-based Great Lakes Airlines notified the city this week that all of its air service at Great Bend Municipal Airport will cease at the end of this month, Airport Manager Martin Miller announced Thursday. This is one month shy of its original contract with the United States Department of Transportation. 

So, effective April 1, Great Bend will be without airline service until the next Essential Air Service order takes effect, in May of this year, Miller said. Great Lakes will, however, continue its flights from Hays to Denver. 

Both Hays and Great Bend have experienced substantial decreases in scheduled flights over the last several months. 

“We will be in a transition period with a new type of service,” Miller said. “The City Council has recommended that DOT accept a bid from SeaPort Airlines for Great Bend and we are excited about working to get more reliable air service to our area.”

But, as of now, DOT has not yet issued its order for Essential Air Service for the next two-year period, commencing May 1. The DOT’s selection of SeaPort Airlines of Portland, Ore., for Great Bend is anticipated, though not official as of yet. SeaPort will provide twice daily service to Wichita, and  once daily service to Kansas City through Salina.

The fact that the order has not been issued could delay the start of the probable SeaPort service beyond the first of May, Miller said. “We are in contact with both SeaPort and DOT.”

Under the next contracts, Hays will retain Denver service.  This allows area residents to choose either an east-bound destinations through Great Bend, or a west-bound destinations through Hays. 

This allows area residents to choose either an east-bound destination through Great Bend, or a west-bound destination through Hays, Miller said. “The City of Great Bend looks forward to sharing efforts with Hays, so that area residents have the option to fly east out of Great Bend, or west out of Hays.”

At its Jan. 6 meeting, the Great Bend City Council accepted its Essential Air Service Committee recommendation to pick SeaPort as the EAS provider. This recommendation was forwarded to the DOT which has the final say in the matter.

The USDOT sent the two proposals the city. The federal agency administers the program and will make the ultimate decision, but wanted local input first.

At the January meeting, it was noted that SeaPort offers 18 round-trip flights to Wichita each week via a nine-passenger aircraft. There is also a chance some of the flights could be through Kansas City.

The other bid came from Great Lakes. Its plan, which is similar to the current one, called for 12 round-trip flights per week to Denver via a 19-passenger plane.

Every two years, the USDOT solicits bids for EAS carriers.

There were several factors that went into the committee’s decision.

First, the current carrier wasn’t meeting city expectations. The airline canceled 22 of 48 flights in November, canceled 18 in December and has only flown limited flights so far this year.

There were other stories of poor service, passengers being stranded in airports and lost luggage.

But, some on the council supported Great Lakes and said the Federal Aviation Administration changed pilot hour requirements. This has lead to a pilot shortage for Great Lakes.

A Great Bend resident who flies out of Great Bend to Denver often spoke at the meeting as well. The frequent passenger said a flight to Wichita is “pointless” and Denver is a major hub, making for fewer layovers.

 However, during the EAS selection two years ago when Great Lakes was selected, there were also bad reports about Great Lakes. At that time, there were no FAA changes.

A city’s EAS status depends on the number of passengers and its distance from a hub. However, passenger count is the big factor, and should people stop flying Great Lakes due to the service, the city runs the risk of losing EAS.

The SeaPort bid was lower than Great Lake’s bid. It came in at $1.4 million and was $541,000 lower than Great Lakes, and the feds might look favorably on that.

Also, SeaPort uses Cessna Caravan planes which are still in production. Great Lakes flies Beechcraft 1900s which are not being made anymore, causing problems getting parts.

Other considerations were the Transportation Security Administration screening process and the proximity to other airports in the area.

Up until two years ago, Great Bend worked with four other western Kansas cities as sort of a rural air coalition  – Dodge City, Garden City, Hays and Liberal. Garden City has since sort of broken away and sought a different carrier, and Hays is doing the same thing this year.

 The city learned of the two competing proposals sort of at the last minute in late December. Mayor Mike Allison and Miller quickly formed a committee to study the matter. The goal is to have the panel in place by the end of the year and a proposal before the council this meeting.

The committee was made up of Miller, city administrators and staff members, council members, airport users and other interested individuals.

 City officials forwarded comments to the DOT by the Jan. 13 deadline.

According to the DOT, the Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978, gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service. The EAS program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers.

This is done by subsidizing two to four round trips a day to a major hub airport. The department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

For more information contact Miller at 620-793-4168.