The airline business at Pierre Regional Airport ended the year on an upswing, with the most passengers boarding in any December since 1980, City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga said this week.
After the Commission’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Huizenga gave an update on 2019 boardings to illustrate how well the community’s new air service is doing.
December boardings were 1,787, the best in 40 years, he said. 1980, of course, was about when the nation’s deregulation of airlines got going, which created headwinds especially for smaller, rural airports to compete. In the 1970s, the Pierre airport saw many thousands of passengers each year as several flights and more than one airline provided service to Sioux Falls and Rapid City as well as Minneapolis.
But since then, it has been a different story. More recent difficulties for airlines the past several years have led to pilot shortages, which hurt service into Pierre.
California Pacific Airlines couldn’t make a go of it and stopped service abruptly in February 2019. Community and airport leaders pushed federal DOT officials to fast-track a decision to help Pierre find a new carrier. The answer was SkyWest doing business in partnership with United Airlines, which began landing in Pierre in early April.
It has been great, Huizenga says: a total of 14,797 passengers by Dec. 31 for 2019. And that includes the fallow months of February and March with no service and only 328 passenger boardings in January 2019.
Since SkyWest/United got going for a full month, in May, it has averaged 1,708 passengers a month, including the big hunting months of September (1,808), October (2,081) and November (1,661). Twelve months of 1,708 passengers each month would total 20,496 passengers. That’s what Huizenga set as a goal for this year: “Twenty thousand for 2020,” he said Tuesday. “That’s what we are shooting for.”
Of course the federal Essential Air Service program — aimed at helping small, isolated airports — that subsidizes the air service to the airline company by a couple hundred dollars per passenger is a big help.
And with larger passenger numbers, there is no worry about meeting the federal threshold of 10,000 passengers a year to qualify for a separate subsidy of $1 million to the airport itself for needed improvements, Huizenga has said.
The main problem at the airport now illustrates the good news. “The bigger issue we have right now is parking at the airport,” he said. People leaving on a jet plane are parking on the grass or the snow next to the full parking lot, Huizenga said.
There is money in the city’s 2020 budget for adding parking spots, even lots, he said.
“So that is a problem I will gladly take. We had a lot more people coming out there that we have officials stalls for.”