The federal Department of Transportation ruled Thursday against petitions by the cities of Pierre and Watertown and SkyWest Airlines to vacate and rebid the DOT’s April 13 order contracting Denver Air Connection to provide Essential Air Service to the two cities.
“For a petition for reconsideration to persuade the Department to overturn an order, it must provide specific information as to how the Department erred in its decision making analysis under the statutes, regulations, and other processes or failed to consider information on the record in the case,” DOT Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Joel Szabat wrote in the Thursday order. “After reviewing the claims made by Pierre, Watertown, and SkyWest in their petitions for reconsideration and responses thereto by DAC, the Department finds that none of those claims are sufficiently supported or adequate to justify the Department overturning its decision to select DAC to provide EAS at Pierre and Watertown for a two-year term.”
Szabat reiterated the fact that SkyWest’s bid would cost the federal government $7.7 million more over the space of two years than Denver Air Connection’s bid.
“Congress authorized the Department in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 to take such relative subsidy requirements into account in selecting an air carrier for EAS subsidized service,” Szabat wrote. “The Department had done so here and selected DAC for subsidized EAS service at Pierre and Watertown. The Petitioners do not provide persuasive evidence that the cost basis of the Department’s selection, which it is authorized to consider in the best interest of the program, is flawed.”
Szabat went on to note that the DOT expects SkyWest to “work with DAC to make a smooth service transition at” Pierre and Watertown, as outlined in a previous order.
“The Department will continue to monitor closely the provision of EAS at Pierre and Watertown, as it does at all eligible communities, and the Department will work with the communities in addressing concerns with their EAS,” Szabat wrote.
“We respect that the communities had concerns over our selection and that we were not the first choice,” Denver Air Connection Director of Business Development Jon Coleman wrote in a Thursday statement. “We do believe though, that during this initial period of operating in SD our performance has shown we deliver on promises we make. While we would have preferred to have had a smooth transition occur in May when we announced our July start date we will work diligently now to rebook and accommodate those that have existing tickets on Sky(W)est. We will consider additional flights if necessary. We are grateful this chapter has closed. We look forward to a fruitful partnership with the communities and will continue to deliver safe, reliable, and first-class air service for the region.”
In a Thursday statement, SkyWest said the company is “disappointed” by the DOT decision not to rebid the Pierre-Watertown EAS contract but appreciates the support it has received in South Dakota.
“We appreciate the tremendous support we have seen from travelers in the communities, airport officials, Governor Noem, Senators Thune and Rounds, and other local leaders,” the statement read. “As with every community we serve, we will continue to evaluate our flight schedules in Pierre and Watertown and their long-term sustainability.”
Pierre City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga told the Capital Journal that the city will continue to “enjoy” having the service of two airlines, a situation unexpected when Denver Air Connection first received the Pierre-Watertown EAS contract in April.
“This news didn’t really come as any surprise to us,” Huizenga said of the DOT’s decision. “We assumed at some point early on when they didn’t do the rebid that this would probably come at some point.”
The busy season
The busy season is just about upon Pierre Regional Airport as hunting season comes back around for 2021-22, Airport Manager Cameron Howard told the Capital Journal on Friday.
“The busy season is typically hunting season, so we’re talking about, realistically, the next month, give or take,” Howard said. “The numbers so far are really good. We’re happy to see that people are coming in to visit Pierre and hunt, and right now it looks like the majority of the planes are, if not full, they’re very close to full.”
July was Pierre Regional’s busiest month thus far with 1,924 enplanements, according to data presented to the Pierre City Commission on Tuesday, though the airport has seen at least 1,200 every month dating back to May.
SkyWest eclipsed Denver Air in August enplanements by a margin of 1,160 to 505. Denver Air narrowed the gap in September with 695 enplanements to SkyWest’s 1,014.