All we wanted, all these years, was a reliable, reasonably priced airline we could trust.
That’s why SkyWest Airlines is succeeding so strongly in North Platte — not to mention in Scottsbluff-Gering and Kearney — after so many others had struggled for 35 years.
It’s time to speak up to make sure we get to keep it.
Public comments will be taken through Sept. 3 by the U.S. Department of Transportation on whether SkyWest, which began round-trip Denver service in February 2018, should keep receiving Essential Air Service subsidies to serve North Platte and Scottsbluff into early 2023.
SkyWest, which connects each city with Denver International Airport as United Express, was the only bidder to serve both cities after the Jan. 31 end of its initial two-year commitment.
That may not seem extraordinary. But consider North Platte Airport Manager Sam Seafeldt’s observation that the DOT opened its renewal process in mid-June rather than waiting until November.
That’s how well things are going with SkyWest at Lee Bird Field, not to mention the Western Nebraska Regional Airport outside Scottsbluff.
Our region lost direct air connections to eastern Nebraska after EAS subsidies for the old “river run” were withdrawn and the last attempt to serve the route collapsed about 15 years ago.
That service, once provided along with Denver flights by the original Frontier Airlines, isn’t coming back.
But even the Denver flights had trouble keeping customers as one after another smaller carrier tried and left North Platte. Ditto for Scottsbluff.
Why? Simple: Western Nebraskans’ cars were more reliable than those carriers’ planes.
It wasn’t that folks out here preferred driving. It’s a 3½-hour drive to DIA from North Platte and a half-hour less than that from Scottsbluff.
You have to pay tolls and long-term parking fees. Depending on flight times, you might also face a long nighttime drive home or be forced to get a hotel room in or near Denver.
Who wants to do that?
But Frontier, which also received EAS support, flew reliable turboprop and later jet planes with at least 50 seats. It did well enough to keep serving our airports for a quarter-century.
Over the next 35 years, however, Frontier’s successors in our airline market usually chose planes with one-third the seats (or fewer) of Frontier’s old turboprops. And their flights too often were delayed or canceled.
Some of them would say their fiscal choices were limited, even with EAS.
But no wonder they failed.
No wonder western Nebraska’s two largest airports were struggling to get enough boardings each year to stay eligible for federal Airport Improvement Program funds (a separate program from EAS) that help them maintain safe facilities without imposing even more upon property taxpayers.
That’s not a problem now. SkyWest’s 50-passenger jets are routinely flying more passengers than those puny commuter planes had seats.
People like SkyWest’s flying experience. They consider the fares affordable. And the planes take off and land on time.
We haven’t seen that kind of air service out here in a long time. We were just waiting for someone to offer it again.
That’s what’s different.
If you like what SkyWest is providing western Nebraska, email Michael Martin of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service and Small Community Air Service Development Program by Sept. 3 at email@example.com and tell him why. Put the case number (Order 2019-6-11) in the email.
We should know the DOT’s decision by this fall, when our airport marks the first of its three founding centennials.
It was still just an open field when several daredevil flyers landed there in fall 1919, racing coast to coast to prove transcontinental airmail service was feasible.
They did, and North Platte’s first airmail flight landed at our airfield in September 1920. The next February, Jack Knight took off from there on his groundbreaking nighttime flight that secured North Platte’s boast of having the nation’s first lighted airfield.
It’s beyond encouraging to see Lee Bird Field — which United Airlines served directly in its early decades — once more bustling with passengers.
Let’s let the feds know we’ll keep flying to and from there as long as outfits like SkyWest do.