Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Pierre Regional Airport (KPIR) saw only 9,174 boardings in 2014; feds could cut $850,000

Only 9,174 passengers boarded Great Lakes Aviation aircraft last year at the Pierre Regional Airport to fly to Denver or Minneapolis, according to figures released Tuesday by Mike Isaacs, airport manager.

That’s not only a big plunge from previous years — 34 percent below the five-year average of 13,872 boardings — it’s well below the crucial level of 10,000 annual “enplanements.” Coming in beneath that level could cost the city nearly all of the $1 million in federal subsidies each year to maintain the airport, Isaacs and city commission members say.

Mayor Laurie Gill said Tuesday after the numbers were announced that they were the lowest she’s seen in 15 years on the city commission and threaten the airport’s future.

The airport receives $1 million in federal funds to small community airports each year. But those funds are pegged to seeing that at least 10,000 passengers use the airport annually.

Isaacs said it’s a firm federal line: “If enplanements are 9,999, we get $150,000 (in airport subsidies).”

Gill said that would be a back-breaker.

“That’s not enough, long-term, every year to keep that airport open,” the mayor said.

The figures from the feds that Isaacs released Tuesday are not official and won’t be for several months, but there’s no reason to think “we’re going to find another 826 passengers” in the data, said Commissioner Jeanne Goodman.

From 2009 through 2013, the airport saw an average of 13,872 passengers annually while airline configurations changed, including Mesaba, Delta and Allegiant as well as Great Lakes, ranging from 15,184 in 2011 to 11,565 in 2012.

In 2013, Great Lakes reported 14,010 enplanements while Allegiant reported 148, for a total of 14,158; Great Lakes reported 11,565 in 2012.

In 2011, Delta reported 10,646 and Great Lakes 4,538, for a total of 15,184.

“We have had one year of troubled air service,” she said. She said while Great Lakes has been pressured, like many airlines, by the new federal regulations 18 months ago requiring more pilot training, the inconsistent service including canceled flights has been too much to bear for too many. Boardings averaged only 765 each month last year, compared with 1,180 in 2013. In December, only 673 passengers boarded Great Lakes in Pierre, including Mayor Gill.

She returned Jan. 3 from visiting family in Phoenix, flying to Denver where she got on the Great Lakes plane for Pierre. The flight was fine, except she had to re-book it after Great Lakes cancelled her reservation in November, part of many such cancellations, Gill said. “At least I got back the day I wanted to,” she said.

But for many it doesn’t work, she said.

“The way this has played out for us, we’ve got a community that has decided they are going to drive somewhere else to fly.”

The city will ask the DOT for a waiver from the rule of 10,000 hoping to keep the $1 million airport subsidy, Gill said.

But that would only be good for a year and it’s a one-time deal, meaning the long-term problem of falling passenger numbers has to be solved, Gill and Goodman said.

That’s why the city a month ago recommended to the feds that a charter airline company, Aerodynamics Inc., be authorized to begin scheduled commercial flights to Denver from Pierre under the Essential Air Service subsidy program.

ADI proposed flying 12 round-trip flights a week from Pierre to Denver if EAS funding of $2 million comes through as part of a program to subsidize air service to and from isolated communities.

Gill said Tuesday night she hasn’t heard yet from DOT, although she had expected to know by now.

Although questions have been raised by some in the community, and also in other communities, about the fitness of ADI, Gill said it’s the federal government’s job now to make that decision.
It’s possible the DOT will award the EAS subsidies to Great Lakes rather than ADI, she said.

Isaacs said Pierre has a history of higher numbers of air travelers and that the region near Pierre could provide thousands more, making 20,000 enplanements a year a reasonable goal given better airline service.

In other business, the city commission heard complaints from retired city employees who were told recently their health insurance costs would increase up to 88 percent.

A group of six former city employees who retired before they reached the age of 65 continue to receive subsidized premium rates under the city’s health insurance plan. Five of them attended Tuesday’s meeting to say it was unfair they were given only a week’s notice their monthly insurance costs would be greatly increased. City commissioners said errors in previous calculations meant the retirees had not been paying as much as they should be paying, so a correction is needed. But the commission tabled the issue for a week to discuss ways to phase in the increases to make them less painful for retirees.

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