Gov. Kristi Noem released a statement on Tuesday that stated she will continue urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to consider rebidding the Pierre and Watertown Essential Air Service contract, now more than two months after SkyWest requested the same and three months after Denver Air Connection won the EAS contract for both cities.
“With fall pheasant season approaching, South Dakota appreciates SkyWest’s commitment to the Pierre and Watertown markets for the foreseeable future. The high-quality air service they provide enhances our state’s tourism numbers and economic growth,” Noem said in a Tuesday press release.
SkyWest President and CEO Chip Childs voiced his thanks to Noem and other South Dakota officials in the release.
“We have appreciated Governor Noem’s personal engagement and today we are pleased to reaffirm our commitment to providing United Express flights to Pierre and Watertown for the foreseeable future,” Childs said.
In a Wednesday statement to the Capital Journal, SkyWest noted its approval from South Dakota officials even beyond the Governor’s Office.
“SkyWest was proud to receive the public endorsement of many elected leaders, including the airport boards in Pierre and Watertown, the city mayors, both US Senators and Gov. Noem,” the statement read. “These recommendations are some of the factors the DOT is supposed to consider when awarding an EAS contract.”
Pierre City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga told the Capital Journal on Tuesday that Denver Air is “absolutely” established enough in its first weeks in central South Dakota skies to get a fair shake from Noem and the state. Denver Air started service in Pierre and Watertown on July 1.
“This is capitalism,” Huizenga said. “We can go out to united.com and we have two different airlines to pick from and you can make your choice according to what your schedule works out. I think it’s working out pretty good. I think both airlines are boarding passengers, I haven’t seen all of the July enplanements yet but I know early on it looked like both airlines had quite a few seats booked for the calendar month of July.”
Huizenga added that the city is “thankful” for Noem’s help.
“Denver Air’s doing a good job, but we also have a lot of people in the hunting industry that have already pre-booked their customers to fly into Pierre with United and SkyWest,” Huizenga said. “And so with her help it looks like SkyWest is going to be here throughout the hunting season for sure and we’re just thankful that they’re going to stick with us through the hunting season and we’ll see how long they stay, but it looks like we’re going to keep them through the hunting season and that should make for a smooth fall hunting season.”
Noem spokesperson Ian Fury was unavailable by phone on Wednesday, but via email referred back to Noem’s May 12 letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, which noted an “excellent” relationship with SkyWest since the St. George, Utah-based carrier took the reins at Pierre Regional Airport in April 2019. Fury further stated that Noem is “engaging in conversations with businesses that serve her constituents and providing an update backed by actionable data.”
“Governor Noem supports the united recommendations of the cities of Pierre and Watertown, the Pierre and Watertown airports, all three members of the congressional delegation, and others,” Fury wrote. “We all recognize that SkyWest can better serve these two communities and their surrounding regions. Additionally, the EAS request plainly states ‘the communities and the State of South Dakota are welcome to submit comments at any time.’”
Tuesday’s press release from Noem’s office noted that SkyWest “continued to outperform its competitors in enplanements at both the Pierre and Watertown airports.” The Capital Journal reported on July 13 that SkyWest enplaned 331 passengers at Pierre Regional Airport between July 1 and July 7, compared to Denver Air’s 269 passengers.
Denver Air head of business development Jon Coleman told the Capital Journal on Wednesday that operations in Pierre and Watertown have been smooth thus far and that he has spoken with the staffs of South Dakota’s congressional delegation, but that he has not received a return phone call from Noem’s office.
The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment by publication time Wednesday.