Monday, February 15, 2016

Great Bend has one last shot at regional air service

Great Bend has only one more chance at retaining regional air service at Great Bend Municipal Airport, and that is a hail Mary, Airport Manager Martin Miller said. 

Miller updated the City Council Monday night on the effort to resume such flights after the most recent provider, Portland, Ore.-based Seaport Airlines, pulled out in January. The flights to the airport fell under the federal Essential Air Service program.

Now, Great Bend must convince the United States Department of Transportation that it is eligible for EAS, Miller said.

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 round trips to a major hub airport. However, Miller said a 2012 change limited the amount of subsidies the feds would pay for air service to EAS communities to $1,000 per month in a calendar year, a limit being strictly enforced.

At last report, Great Bend was receiving over $1,500.

However, Miller said Seaport had been struggling with its Great Bend operations for some time. The airline, which has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, had improperly billed and calculated flights through Great Bend.

So, for three months of the past year, Great Bend was really receiving under $1,000. Miller said the average is still above the limit, but they might be able to show USDOT a record of mismanagement and gain pity.

“This is our last shot,” he said. 

The other numbers are not in Great Bend’s favor. The total number of passengers in and out, and landings has been down significantly in recent years, Miller said.

The council authorized Mayor Mike Allison to submit a letter petitioning the USDOT for a waiver from the limit to keep Great Bend in the EAS program.

Now, they are in a holding pattern, Miller said. Should the agency reject the plea, Great Bend will lose the service and will likely never get it back. 

Effective Jan. 17, Seaport discontinued service to Kansas and Missouri. A surprise announcement to the city from the company said the move was due to the current pilot shortage and the resulting restructuring its route network.

In March 2014, the United States Department of Transportation selected Seaport to provide commercial air service to the Great Bend Municipal Airport. The Essential Air Service contract was for a two-year period and under the deal, Seaport would provide 18 round-trip flights per week. 

The 2014 order came shortly after the previous EAS provider Great Lakes Aviation announced it was terminating its contract one month early, leaving in question if commercial air service in Great Bend would be available.
In January, the airline also discontinued scheduled air service in California and Mexico.

At the Feb. 1 council meeting, Mayor Mike Allison named Great Bend Municipal Airport Manager Martin Miller, Airport Advisory Committee President Brock McPherson, City Councilman Joel Jackson and AAC member and businessman Chris Spray to the ad hoc Air Service Review Committee. Their goal was to review proposals for a new EAS provider.


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