Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Air service may return to Sheridan, Wyoming, by November

A Colorado-based airline could be providing Sheridan with commercial service by Nov. 1, according to task force members charged with recruitment.

The Sheridan/Johnson Critical Air Service Group is trying to raise about $2.6 million to entice Key Lime Air to replace Great Lakes Airlines. The Cheyenne-based airline abandoned the facility April 1, citing a pilot shortage.

That money would be used to ensure Key Lime Air a minimum amount of revenue. The Critical Air Service Group recently submitted a request to the Wyoming Aeronautics Divison for $1.6 million. The Aeronautics Division is vetting that proposal ahead of an Aug. 18 decision on the matter.

“That money from the state is obviously important,” said Bruce Garber, chairman of the Critical Air Service Group.

Sheridan and Johnson counties have committed $700,000 to the project and the local task force is starting to ask for private donations, Garber added.

The plan calls for three daily departures from Sheridan and two arrivals from Denver in a 30-passenger jet. One-way fares would be about $150.

As part of the agreement, he said the community would have input into the times flights left and the fares people pay.

“They are looking at us like a partnership,” Garber said. “With the larger carriers, you are along for the ride.”

The airport recently received a $500,000 grant to promote that air service. It will be up to local chambers, travel and tourism boards, the business community and passengers to market the service, Garber added.

Key Lime Air, founded in 1997, operates commercial flights between Grand Junction and the Denver area, but it also flies cargo and runs charter services for university sports teams, Garber said.

The company has had 11 accidents since 2000, including a spate of three accidents since Dec. 30, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s database. The pilot of a Cessna cargo plane was killed Dec. 30 when he lost engine power and crashed into a neighborhood. The other two accidents, on Jan. 21 and April 16, also involved engine failures. No one was injured in those accidents.

“I wouldn’t say there’s not concerns,” Garber said.

At the same time, he said those accidents should be placed in the context of the number of takeoffs and landings Key Lime Air has every year. He also pointed out all three accidents happened to cargo flights, which he said operate under different circumstances.

“The cargo segment of their business, that is a tough business. That’s a small aircraft in tough weather conditions,” Garber said. “The cargo environment is different than hauling around the passengers.”

Key Lime holds a "platinum" certification from Argus International Inc., an independent company that rates charter operators based on safety standards, according to Sheri Taylor, the state's air service development program manager.

Key Lime Air spokesman Wade Goetz did not respond to messages left Tuesday with his office.

The loss of commercial air service when Great Lakes left hit a wide range of sectors in the Sheridan area.

Local businessmen like Troy Baker, a partner at Hammer Chevrolet, now have to worry about extra expenses and, potentially, hazardous weather during their regular out-of-state trips. The inconvenience hasn’t harmed his business, he said, but he called it potentially damaging to the Sheridan County economy as a whole.

“If you look at the bigger picture, like right now for example, the guest ranches, they’re traveling miles and miles and miles picking up clients back and forth,” Baker said. “It’s very difficult to attract a new business to Sheridan because we don’t have air travel. I think it has a huge effect on Sheridan as a whole.”

Individually, professionals considering a move back home and to work remotely are also turned off by the lack of convenient air travel, Garber said. As a realtor, he’s seen national retailers turn their sights to other communities after discovering Sheridan doesn’t have reliable air service.

A 2013 economic impact study on Wyoming’s commercial airports claimed Sheridan visitors stayed nearly four-and-a-half days and spent nearly $550 a trip, in addition to creating upwards of 100 direct jobs and millions in taxes and payroll.

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