Denver Air Connection officials visited Pierre on Wednesday to meet with the local airport board after the subsidiary of Key Lime Air was selected to fulfill the city’s Essential Air Service contract last week.
Denver Air chief operating officer Glen Rich and head of business development Jon Coleman flew one of the company’s 50-seat Embraer EMB-145 jets to Pierre for the meeting. The company has big shoes to fill in replacing present Pierre-Watertown EAS contract holder SkyWest, which both cities favored when the U.S. Department of Transportation asked for 2021-23 EAS contract recommendations back in October.
Coleman told the Capital Journal on Wednesday that he understands the concerns of locals who may be skeptical of another changeup at Pierre Regional Airport.
“People aren’t just mad or upset, they’re not just mad because they didn’t get their way,” Coleman said. “There’s a history that has led them to have the feelings that they have and the concerns and the fears that they have. And I feel while that’s not us, they’re coming from a place that’s not an unreasonable place. I guess what I’m trying to say is we understand why they’re concerned. And while they don’t apply to us as to the way we operate, they had experience that led them to feel the way they do.”
Pierre city commissioner Jamie Huizenga said he felt Wednesday’s meeting went “very well,” adding, “based on the information that they delivered, they’re probably in a better position than I thought they were.”
“I will say I feel better about their ability to meet the needs of our flying public in and out of Pierre,” Huizenga said. “And I was very blunt with some of my questions and my comments. We have had a series of challenges as we’ve come to run this airport the last decade between different airlines… I personally have received multiple phone calls when things didn’t go well from the flying public and so I went into this somewhat skeptical because I don’t know anything about Denver Air and (if this) is... another small airline that can’t meet our requirements.”
USDOT selected Denver Air over SkyWest on April 13 in a decision that surprised city officials and drew the notice of U.S. Sen. John Thune, who called the order a “bombshell” for local businesses in Pierre and Watertown.
In its order choosing Denver Air over SkyWest, USDOT said it could not “reasonably justify” the cost of choosing the option Pierre recommended in November, which would have seen SkyWest connect both Pierre and Watertown to Denver International Airport and Chicago O’Hare. The order instead confirms Denver Air as the carrier for 12 weekly round trips from Pierre to Denver, six of them shared with Watertown, and six weekly round trips from Watertown to O’Hare.
The cost of USDOT’s preferred option is approximately $9.6 million in subsidy over two years, about $7.7 million less than the option Pierre preferred.
”We were disappointed to learn of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) decision regarding our proposal to continue air service for Pierre and Watertown, South Dakota,” SkyWest’s corporate communications office said Monday. “SkyWest appreciates the strong support we have seen from travelers, community leaders, and airport officials since we began providing reliable air service to the community in 2019.”
In 2019, Pierre Regional Airport saw nearly 15,000 passengers despite having no service in February or March and only 328 passengers aboard California Pacific Airlines flights in January. California Pacific abruptly stopped service in Pierre on Jan. 17 of that year and had its air operating certificate terminated in 2020.
2019’s passenger figure compares to 11,791 in 2017 and 10,442 in 2018. SkyWest’s 2019 pace largely continued in the first two months of 2020, but quickly plummeted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watertown Airport Board President Shannon E. Kruse said in a November letter of recommendation that passenger traffic at Watertown Regional increased “significantly” since SkyWest took over the EAS contract in 2019.
Coleman and Rich met with Watertown officials for a meeting that was “filled with honesty,” in Coleman’s words, before flying into Pierre on Wednesday afternoon.
“The first thing was to show them that our operation is not even in the same realm as the operators that they’ve had problems with,” Coleman said of the Watertown meeting. “We are a smaller airline than SkyWest by all means, but there are good things about that, as well. The other purpose, which was really the primary purpose, was to give all of those people an opportunity to express themselves face-to-face and have them have the ability to ask us questions and clarify a lot of the things I think that are concerning them.”