The COVID-19 pandemic has hit air travel hard.
The number of canceled flights has exploded, airlines have lost billions in losses and a lack of passengers has turned once-bustling airports into ghost towns.
For rural airports like Hays – not bustling, but critical in their own way – the closures hurt even more.
At the peak of 2020 stay-at-home orders, just 29 people left Hays Regional Airport for the whole month of April. Time and time again, airport manager Jamie Salter has said that some planes take off without any passengers.
“There were times when they would come and they didn’t have anyone,” Salter said. “I hope it’s something we never see again.”
The good news: Air travel is rebounding.
About 900 monthly passengers flew from Hays in 2021 and 2022, about 75% of the 1,236 monthly passengers the airport saw in the year before the pandemic.
Then there is the bad news.
As demand for flights surges in response to falling COVID-19 case rates, the country’s airlines Wrestle to follow the increase in traffic. Now Hays and more than two dozen other regional airports across the country are at risk of losing their only commercial airline, SkyWest.
The only thing stopping that is the federal government. Since the airline has accepted heavy tax subsidies to operate flights at smaller airports, the company needs approval from the US Department of Transportation to pull out.
The situation is the local symptom of a larger challenge: a pilot shortage caused by a wave of early retirements during the pandemic and a lack of new pilots with the training and certification to replace them.
“They really don’t have the staff to do it,” Salter said. “Nobody, I don’t think, expected the trip to come back in a roar like it did.”
In the same way that small towns face a challenge competing with big cities to recruit skilled workers, small airlines like SkyWest must compete with big ones like Delta and Southwest for pilots. And because larger airlines carrying more passengers to bigger cities can pay pilots more money, smaller airports like Hays are often left behind in the line.
SkyWest filed documents with the federal government this spring giving 90 days notice of its intention to end service at 29 of its 49 airports.
The state with the most cities facing this predicament is Kansas, where four of the state’s eight commercial airports – Hays, Liberal, Dodge City and Salina – are now scrambling to secure the future of their local flights .
This group of 29 also includes airports in neighboring states of Missouri (Joplin, Fort Leonard Wood and Cape Girardeau), Colorado (Pueblo and Alamosa) and Nebraska (Scottsbluff, Kearney and North Platte).
Eli Svaty, executive director of the liberal economic development group Seward County Development Corporation, said this isn’t the first time there have been rumors of commercial air service potentially leaving towns like his in western Kansas.
“One in two times it seems like it would work on its own before any major disruption. And then this time it feels a bit more real,” Svaty said. “It’s been a tumultuous few months, to say the least.”
Without local flights, Hays residents might have to travel 275 miles to Kansas City or 334 miles to Denver to board a plane. These trips to major airports are even further away for the Liberals.
“Because we’re so far from Denver (and) Kansas City, we need to have some sort of trip that’s more convenient than just taking Highway 54 and driving,” Svaty said, “That’s really our lifeline. rescue for the rest of the world.”
The uncertainty following SkyWest’s announcement exposed the precarious nature of air travel in rural areas like western Kansas, where airports offer only one or two flights on a good day.
But Svaty said it also illustrates how vital those one or two robberies are for the survival of small towns.
“Not to say you lose the airport, you lose the city,” Svaty said. “But it’s critical that … we find something that can assure people that, ‘It’s OK to live here in rural Kansas because we still have great air service.'”
‘Shot in the Guts’
Although the total number of passengers departing from rural airports like Hays and Liberal may seem small, having commercial air service still gives a big boost to local economies.
A 2017 commissioned study by the Kansas Department of Transportation indicates that Hays Regional Airport contributes an annual economic impact of nearly $18 million. Liberal Airport injects over $38 million into the local economy.
So SkyWest’s announcement in March sent shockwaves through those communities.
Hays Chamber of Commerce Director Sarah Wasinger said air service is vital for a city like Hays to recruit, attract and retain good talent for critical jobs like doctors, nurses and educators. .
“Without Hays Regional Airport, there would be quite a few people who wouldn’t even consider Hays as an employment option,” Wasinger said, “simply because they consider it a element of quality of life necessary for them to move”.
Wasinger said reliable air travel is also important for the city’s current businesses, such as retailers who must travel for seasonal purchases.
But the pilot shortage has already caused some upheaval, even though SkyWest hasn’t officially left.
Many airlines, including SkyWest, have begun pairing routes from regional airports – Liberal and Dodge City, Hays and Salina. The plan allows the same pilots to serve multiple cities at the same time, but roughly halves the number of direct flights for each city.
Svaty said there’s a big difference between boarding a direct 45-minute flight from Liberal to Denver and boarding a flight that stops in Dodge City along the way. And this change in flight schedules has already made its task of attracting new businesses and new workers to Liberal all the more difficult.
For example, an agricultural company needed to travel to Liberal from California to consider moving its operations to southwestern Kansas. But after SkyWest’s announcement, the company scrapped its travel plans. They are still pending.
“I sold this place on the possibility of them being able to get from California to here in two quick flights,” Svaty said. “Now all of a sudden… it’s going to be a totally different situation than I sold them on. And so from my point of view, it was just a belly shot.
Here’s another example: During the pandemic, the Liberals hosted a handful of technicians from Seattle who wanted to see what working remotely from southwest Kansas would be like. Svaty had planned to make an effort to attract more remote workers like this by marketing Liberal as a place where they could enjoy a lower cost of living and more space, while still being able to return to the West Coast. in two easy flights.
Now those plans are on hold.
“We have a lot of great jobs, we just don’t have the people,” Svaty said. “So when you lose those nuggets of quality of life, it’s even harder to get them to move here.”
Hurry up and wait
The long-term future of airports like Hays and Liberal is still uncertain.
Salter with Hays Airport hopes the federal government, the airport and SkyWest could still find a solution that keeps SkyWest in Hays, even if it means having fewer flights per week.
Indeed, she said, SkyWest remains the best option available to serve a small airport like Hays through the federal Essential Air Service program – which subsidizes airline flights to regional airports.
She said the reliability of Hays’ flights had improved significantly since SkyWest arrived here in 2014. And as soon as the airline announced it was trying to leave, it received a flood of concerned comments from the community urging him to try to keep the Airline.
To that end, Salter and a delegation of other western Kansas community leaders met with Department of Transportation officials in Washington, DC, earlier this month.
But she said an airline trying to leave 29 airports at once is unprecedented, so government officials were probably as stunned by SkyWest’s announcement as the residents of Hays.
Federal transportation officials have “never seen anything like this before,” Salter said. “So it’s really all of us trying to figure this out as we go along.”
For now, the federal government is forcing SkyWest to continue some services to these airports until the cities establish a replacement airline. And she said SkyWest and the DOT have shown a willingness to be flexible.
But the odds of finding another airline to fill SkyWest’s spot on the tarmac right now don’t look promising.
Hays Airport just held a 60-day application period to see if other airlines are interested in coming to town. But he received only one proposal. It came from a boutique commuter airline in California whose planes only have room for about 10 people.
Now that Hays’ passenger traffic is back to what it was in pre-pandemic times, Salter said, those smaller planes wouldn’t reduce it. SkyWest planes carry about 50 people.
“We have no intention of recommending following the offer we received,” Salter said. “The capacity just doesn’t meet our needs.”
It therefore seems increasingly likely that the federal government will continue to fly SkyWest to these airports long after the airline’s proposed release date of June 10.
If no suitable replacement airline comes along, SkyWest may be forced to continue some services to places like Hays until the end of its current contract in August 2024.
“Everything is so up in the air right now in terms of what it will look like in the future,” Salter said. “Hurry up and wait, it looks like we’ve come to that.”
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between High Plains Public Radio, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, and KMUW focused on health, the social determinants of health, and how they relate to public policy.