Pierre Regional Airport

Pierre Regional Airport

The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Denver Air Connection the EAS contract for Pierre and Watertown regional airports amid recovering travel numbers following the year-long pandemic. But the former Essential Air Service provider, SkyWest, might not be leaving the picture after July 1’s transition.

Pierre Commissioner Jamie Huizenga said SkyWest isn’t necessarily going away.

“We’ve been obviously working on this airline transition for a number of months now, and SkyWest has made a decision to continue to serve the Pierre market for at least the near term as one of our airline carriers,” Huizenga said on Monday.

Huizenga provided the Capital Journal with the following statement from SkyWest regarding the airline’s plans for the future at Pierre Regional Airport: “SkyWest Airlines has not indicated any plans to discontinue service at Pierre. Customers can continue to book SkyWest/United Airlines with confidence beyond June 30.”

“The moral of the story is, effective July 1, Denver Air is our EAS provider that’s been awarded the contract. They, I assume, intend to show up and operate as our EAS provider, but as of today they have not actually shown up with any equipment or personnel,” Huizenga said. “But SkyWest has notified the city of Pierre that they intend to continue to serve Pierre beyond that July 1 date as an at-risk carrier. They’re not operating with any subsidy, but they would be operating as an airline out of Pierre.”

SkyWest previously requested a rebid for the EAS contract, asserting that future air traffic was “difficult to forecast” during the fall 2020 bid cycle, well before COVID-19 vaccines were available to the general public.

“At that time, there was no vaccine availability, which has since markedly changed the landscape,” SkyWest managing director of market development Greg Atkin wrote April 28 to U.S. deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs Joel Szabat. “Accordingly, SkyWest believes it is in the best interest of Pierre and Watertown for the DOT to issue a rebid. Issuing a rebid will allow for fresh carrier bids and will give Pierre and Watertown the best chance of receiving realistic proposals that best meet the needs of the communities and support the mission of the Essential Air Service program.”

“Theoretically, effective July 1, we will have two air service providers in Pierre,” Huizenga said. He added that the city “did not see this coming.”

“We continue to support the DOT’s thoughtful consideration of the facts they have received from SkyWest, United, and state officials regarding this issue and look forward to a resolution in the near future,” a Monday statement from SkyWest read. “In the meantime, customers can continue booking to fly on our SkyWest-operated United flights from Pierre and Watertown.”

A SkyWest spokesman could not immediately confirm that the statement meant the airline would be flying out of Pierre past July 1.

“You can go online and book flights out of Pierre from SkyWest and they have apparently a bunch of flights and they intend to honor those into the future,” Huizenga said. “We do not have any sort of a timeline on when or if they will discontinue that, but into the foreseeable future, they intend to stay in Pierre.”

The transition from Denver Air to SkyWest has been a contentious one. Everyone from Gov. Kristi Noem to the entire South Dakota congressional delegation to SkyWest codeshare partner United Airlines has weighed in on whether the U.S. Department of Transportation’s April decision to award the Essential Air Service contract for both airports to Denver Air should be reconsidered.

“Because of SkyWest’s quality service, traffic at Pierre and Watertown Regional Airports skyrocketed prior to the pandemic,” Noem wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg last month. “After the Biden Administration announced an infrastructure package worth over $2.5 trillion, it seems inconsistent to reject SkyWest’s superior service. I strongly encourage you to rethink this decision and instruct your team to issue a re-bid.”

Denver Air head of business development Jon Coleman told the Capital Journal that he has not heard from USDOT regarding a rebid.

“Everything is moving forward for a July 1 start,” Coleman said on Monday, adding that the prospect of SkyWest sticking around does not change Denver Air’s plans at all.

USDOT did not provide comment on whether it had any intention of holding a rebid.

Pierre Regional Airport has seen a significant comeback in passenger traffic with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. May enplanements rose from 130 in 2020 to 1,229 in 2021, according to data provided by airport manager Cameron Howard.

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