Jan 12, 2016

Fate of Cody-Denver service up in the air; Salt Lake flights to increase

The federal government will stop subsidizing flights between Cody and Denver starting March 1.
What that change will mean for passengers traveling through Yellowstone Regional Airport remains to be seen.

For the slower and potentially unprofitable months of October through May, the government has been paying United Airlines $763,317 a year to run daily flights between Cody and Denver International Airport.

Those dollars will stop flowing to United from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service (EAS) program at the end of February, the department recently decided; United could choose to continue the flights without government help or end the service.

“They could make that decision at any point or they could choose to stay in and serve the market,” said Yellowstone Regional Airport Manager Bob Hooper. In late December, Hooper said he had “no idea” what United will do.

Passenger deplane a June 2015 flight from Cody at Denver International Airport. Cody News Co. photo by CJ Baker

A United Airlines spokesman said shortly after the Department of Transportation's Dec. 22 decision that the airline had not decided whether it will continue winter flights to Cody when the federal subsidies end.

“No final decision has been made on the continuation of service after the expiration of the EAS contract,” spokesman Luke Punzenberger said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Cody area travelers can be assured of better service to Salt Lake City.

Starting March 1, SkyWest Airlines will begin offering two daily flights to Salt Lake — up from one. The airline has also promised more flights during the summer months: five a day on weekends and three on weekdays.

The changes stem from the new Essential Air Service contract, which was awarded to SkyWest on Dec. 22 and covers the next two years.

Over the past couple years, the EAS subsidies were shared between SkyWest and United; SkyWest guaranteed one flight to Salt Lake (for $617,462 a year) and United guaranteed one to Denver (for $763,317) between October and May.

However, when the contract came up for bidding this year, United didn’t offer to keep sharing the subsidy. That forced local airport officials to choose whether they’d rather have two flights per day to Denver or two flights per day to Salt Lake City.

Local officials ultimately picked Salt Lake, in large part because of better reliability at the Delta Air Lines hub.

The Department of Transportation agreed with local leaders’ recommendation, also noting that SkyWest’s request for a $938,050 annual subsidy was about $216,800 cheaper than United. On Dec. 22, the government awarded the new EAS contract to SkyWest for service to Salt Lake.

As for the future of air service between Denver and Cody, local airport leaders plan to meet with United brass in late January “to just see what options are available to us,” Hooper said.

He said United will have other factors to consider beyond the loss of the federal dollars.

“Their (passenger) loads are good here. They have a lot of loyalty in their frequent flyer program. So they’ll have to take all that into consideration,” Hooper said. “Plus, with the strength of our service here in the summertime, too, that will all be factored into any decision they would have to make.”

United flies into Cody at its own risk and without a subsidy between June and September, when traffic rises substantially. With a relatively small amount of state help, United started some direct flights from Chicago in the summer; there also have been preliminary discussions about possibly trying direct flights from San Francisco.

If United does alter its service to Cody, “any impacted customers will be re-accommodated according to our standard policies and procedures,” Punzenberger said.

~By CJ Baker


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