Feds to decide which route will receive subsidy
Cody airport officials are asking the federal government to continue subsidizing winter flights to Salt Lake City — although a proposal to provide service to Denver would be hundreds of thousands dollars cheaper.
The recommendations from Yellowstone Regional Airport’s board and the Cody-Yellowstone Air Improvement Resources (CYAIR) organization were driven by past unhappiness with United Airlines, which would operate the Denver flight, and satisfaction with SkyWest Airlines’ service to Delta’s hub in Salt Lake.
“We don’t want to reward bad behavior,” CYAIR administrator and airport board member Bucky Hall said of the majority of his fellow officials’ thinking. “They don’t like United as compared to flying on Delta.”
SkyWest’s twice-a-day flights to Salt Lake between October and June would cost the federal government $1.32 million per year — $471,000 more than United’s proposal to go to and from Denver.
United’s $850,000 request figures that the average Cody-Denver ticket would cost $113, supplemented by a $25.48 subsidy from the government. SkyWest, meanwhile, outlined an average ticket price of $123, plus a $40 per passenger subsidy to cover costs and a 5 percent profit.
The airlines believe they would serve about 33,000 passengers during the eight-month period.
“The gist of the decision [to recommend going with SkyWest] was that, going down the line and in the future, looking way out into the future, United is probably where we need to be,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden, the county’s liaison to CYAIR, apparently referring to Denver’s status as a bigger hub. “But United’s history in Cody has been such that people were very afraid.”
Tilden added that, “SkyWest’s been a great partner. They’ve done a super job.”
United and SkyWest both fly at their own risk/reward during the busier summer months — June through September — and Hall said those planes are generally full.
But things slow down between Oct. 1 and May 31 and the two airlines have been unwilling to fly during those months without a subsidy from the government.
Since 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation has subsidized two daily flights to and from Cody during the winter months through the Essential Air Service program.
SkyWest and United initially split the subsidy — offering one flight to Denver and one to Salt Lake for a combined total of $1.38 million per year — but United declined to continue that arrangement when the contract came up for renewal in 2015. That forced officials to choose between the two hubs.
At that time, SkyWest submitted a cheaper proposal than United — asking for $938,050 per year — and it won the support of locals and the contract.
Local officials did not unanimously endorse SkyWest’s new, pricier proposal; Park County commissioners agreed to back it on a 3-2 vote last week.
“Fifty percent?” Commissioner Jake Fulkerson said of the gap between SkyWest’s and United’s proposals, musing, “50 percent more because they’re going to be more reliable.”
Fulkerson and Commissioner Tim French voted against writing a letter of support for SkyWest, with French noting the difference was “a lot of money.”
“Is there that much difference between the two?” he asked.
Yellowstone Regional Airport Manager Bob Hooper said he’d been surprised to see the difference in price. Hooper said the proposals were otherwise similar and that both airlines have similar reliability.
Hooper added that SkyWest has “been here 23 years, and they’ve provided excellent service to the community and they also have 15 employees here” in Cody.
United told airport officials they intend to use SkyWest’s ground handlers, flight crew and planes if they win the contract, “but they didn’t say absolutely for sure that they would,” Hall said.
The Department of Transportation will have the final say on which airline will receive the subsidy. If the department chooses SkyWest, United may decide that it won’t provide Cody-Denver service in the winter months; that’s what happened last winter. Similarly, SkyWest could choose to end its service to Salt Lake if the Essential Air Service contract goes to United.
“We’re fairly confident that whoever doesn’t get the contract will still fly here [in the] summer, in all likelihood, because the flights were full this summer,” Hall said. Additionally, CYAIR will “aggressively” encourage the other airline to fly beyond the summer months, Hall said, perhaps by extending service into the so-called “shoulder season” or by trying to get them to fly year-round. In the past, CYAIR has offered “revenue guarantees” to keep flights going.
Before Monday’s deadline for input, more than a dozen comments were submitted by members of the general public on the Essential Air Service proposals.
Yancy Dearinger Bonner of Cody said she believes United “better serves the needs of the traveling public flying in and out of YRA [Yellowstone Regional Airport].”
“I recognize that SkyWest has provided a good service to YRA, but a regional carrier simply doesn’t offer the flights and connections that the Park County community and tourists from around the world need,” Bonner wrote.
In contrast, Rebecca Taggart of Cody commented that reliability was more important.
“I can say that United has left me high and dry so often, that I go out of my way to not fly them if at all possible,” Taggart wrote. “Delta (SkyWest) is reliable, on time and actually follows through with their flight schedule. While United does have a few more connection options from Denver, it doesn’t matter if you are unable to actually get to Denver in the first place due to flight cancellations.”
Most of the dozen of so commenters expressed support for United service — though not necessarily at the expense of SkyWest and Delta.
“Having just one airline (Delta) is not enough for our special corner of Wyoming where the greater Yellowstone ecosystem continues to be a major draw for tourists, educators, and businesses,” wrote Anthony Polvere of Powell.