Salina Airport Authority Encouraged by Air Service Update

Salina Regional Airport leaders and advisers are hard at work securing a future for scheduled air service in north-central Kansas.

Aware of vital steps necessary in coming days and weeks, Salina Airport Authority board members gathered in a special meeting Thursday morning, mulling over relatively few options in the wake of actions last month that threaten commercial service to Salina and 28 other Essential Air Service communities in this region.

“We do have a line of sight for a decent outcome,” said Gary Foss, the airport’s air service consultant, through a remote video connection.

If timing works in Salina’s favor, there is a chance for a “somewhat seamless” transition, he said.

At least one promising replacement airline — Key Lime Air, doing business as Denver Air Connection — indicates that they plan to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation on or before the Monday deadline to provide subsidized air service for Salina and North Central Kansas.

SkyWest Airlines filed a 90-day notice of intent to terminate its Essential Air Service contract at Salina on March 10. The major reason for the shutdown is a nationwide shortage of pilots.

The U.S. Department of Transportation responded with a hold-in order, requiring SkyWest to continue operations until a replacement air carrier “begins full Essential Air Service.” A reasonable expectation, according to the USDOT, would be to start full service by at least Dec. 31.

“All air carriers are facing pilot retention and recruitment challenges. A replacement air carrier will need community support for finding pilot shortage solutions.,” said Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.

“The professional pilot training program at K-State Salina will play a role in meeting airline industry need for pilots,” Rogers said.

Exacerbating the problem is the number of affected communities, with only six or seven carriers available.

“We’ve never had a situation where 29 cities have been dumped on the market,” Foss said. What’s worse is there are “very few options,” he said, to fill those air service voids.

“We have a market here that’s unique, and we need to find the right match out of this field of contenders,” Foss said.

Salina sits in a good spot, however, having ranked 10th last December in traffic production, among 56 markets where SkyWest is the sole operator, according to information from the Transportation Security Administration.

“We’ve been working to stand out in the crowd,” Foss said. “We’ve got a lot of cities vying for very few operators.”

Like United Express that is currently serving Salina, Denver Air Connection sports 50-seat jets, he said, and is expected to propose subsidized nonstop flights out of Salina to both Denver and Chicago.

Key Lime/Denver Air Connection also interlines with United flights at both hubs, Rogers said.

“We want to maintain an affiliation with United Airlines so the next carrier can make connections with United in Denver and Chicago,” he said.

As one of the two available airlines operating jets, Foss deemed Denver Air Connection, “a suitable replacement” to SkyWest.

Salina City Manager Mike Schrage, who was listening by phone, agreed that sticking with the Monday deadline proposals, and public comment by April 22, was the right move.

Airport authority board member Stephanie Carlin spoke in favor of the possibility of Denver Air Connection serving Salina.

“This sounds like a very good, mutually beneficial relationship, especially when you consider the airport authority’s plan for growth is highly contingent upon scheduled air service,” she said.

Salina City Commissioner Mike Hoppock thanked the group for sharing information. “It seems like we have pretty much one shot to keep air service,” he said by phone.

Airport Board Chairman Kent Buer thanked Foss, Rogers and the airport authority staff. “Your time and effort given to the community is second to none,” he said.