As a small rural state, Wyoming isn’t a huge player in commercial air service but many want to change that. Currently, a bill working its way through the legislature proposes a new subsidy program that could create more reliable air service.
Cade Maestas is a co-founder of an outdoor equipment company in Lander. Not the most convenient location for an international company since Lander isn’t close to any interstate and the closest airport, Riverton Regional Airport, hasn’t always been reliable.
“We traveled to Jackson or to Casper,” recalled Maestas. “We usually had to go the night before to get an early morning flight so were spending extra nights away from our family and then we’re also booking hotels that were costing us money that we couldn't put back into the company.”
In 2014, the Riverton Regional Airport saw a 41 percent decrease in the number of enplanements. That counts the number of people that boarded the plane in Riverton. Kyle Butterfield, the manager of the airport, said people were frustrated because planes don't fly in and out on time. He blamed changes in the air service industry.
“There were changes to pilot hour requirements and crew rest requirements,” said Butterfield. ”And we saw a significant impact on the ability for Great Lakes Airline to provide service in our communities.”
Those industry changes also drove up ticket prices. However, Riverton was able to obtain a contract with Denver Air Connection, a private air charter company, which is slowly getting customers back.
“They're going back to their local airport,” Butterfield said. “They’re reminded of how nice it is to only have to drive ten minutes to your commercial airport, instead of potentially two hours, six hours or seven hours.”
Riverton was only able to obtain this service with the state’s help. Amy Surdam with the aeronautics division for Wyoming said in 2004 the state introduced the Air Service Enhancement Program (ASEP). The program contributes funds to the community to match the minimum guarantee revenue demanded by an airline. Surdam said the program helped but they think there’s a better way to go about things.
“What if we just came together, the communities and the state, and try to purchase capacity on aircrafts,” said Surdam. “And then we would have more say in gate time and local fare ticket pricing possibly and how we market this.”
The legislature is considering a bill which creates a working group to be in place for one year to finalize a ten-year capacity purchase contract with a single airline for the entire state. Senator Michael Von Flatern who introduced the bill said it’s a win-win for both the state and the airline carrier.
“But if they don't sell enough seats or don't get enough on board, they actually will fly that at a loss. Where this one guarantees and in return, we’re asking them to guarantee us ten years of service
ASEP has used over $60 million since its inception in 2004. And according to Governor Mead’s Economically Needed Diversity Option for Wyoming (ENDOW), the proposed program only requires $15 million for all ten years.
“Under conservative estimates that was in a three to five-year time frame, the model can be self-sustaining,” said Jerimiah Rieman, the director of Economic Diversification Strategy and Initiatives for ENDOW. “And no longer require any state assistance and ultimately perhaps return funding back to local communities for expanded air service to other destinations
Amy Surdam said the main reason the proposal needs to pass is because ASEP will run out of resources by July 1, 2019 and it doesn’t look like the legislature will give it any more money.
“If we don't do this then you’re looking at disrupting service potentially in Riverton, Rock Springs and Sheridan or those communities would have to come up with the full minimum revenue guarantees themselves,” said Surdam.
While many are excited about the proposal, Lander businessman, Cade Maestas is skeptical.
“Airlines don't know what they're doing six months from now. Getting a ten-year commitment seems not based in reality,” he said.
For now, it’s up to the legislature to pass the proposal and then see whether a carrier would actually sign a ten-year contract.