As of Wednesday, U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is yet to decide whether the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recent order affirming Denver Air Connection as the Essential Air Service provider for Pierre and Watertown would affect his vote on the Biden administration’s nomination for Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Aviation and International Affairs.
In August, Thune told the Senate Commerce Committee that how the USDOT deals with calls to rebid the Pierre-Watertown Essential Air Service contract could affect whether he votes for or against the nomination of Annie Petsonk. Petsonk is still listed on the USDOT website as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs in the department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs.
The USDOT awarded the Pierre-Watertown EAS contract to Denver Air Connection on April 13, saying it could not “reasonably justify” the cost of choosing Pierre’s recommended option, which would have previous contract holder SkyWest Airlines connect both Pierre and Watertown to Denver International Airport and Chicago O’Hare. After calls for a rebid went unanswered, SkyWest announced in early June that it would continue flying out of Pierre and Watertown at-risk.
Last week, the federal Department of Transportation ruled against petitions by the cities of Pierre and Watertown and SkyWest Airlines to vacate and rebid the USDOT’s April 13 order contracting Denver Air Connection to provide Essential Air Service to the two cities.
In a Wednesday statement, Thune spokesperson Annie Topp said the Senate Minority Whip was “disappointed” by the amount of time it took for the USDOT to respond to the Pierre, Watertown and SkyWest petitions but hasn’t yet decided whether the order would affect his stance on Petsonk’s nomination.
“Given that the cities submitted reconsideration petitions more than six months ago, Senator Thune is disappointed by the significant delay of the Department of Transportation’s response, which has created uncertainty for both city residents and the airlines serving these communities,” Topp told the Capital Journal. “Senator Thune is currently evaluating the department’s updated order, and he has not yet made a decision on whether or not this will affect his stance on the president’s nominee.”
In a separate statement to the Capital Journal, U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., expressed his disappointment in the USDOT decision.
“Sky(W)est has been a staple in the community, and it’s disappointing DOT will not reconsider Sky(W)est’s bid after many requests from the delegation and the state,” “I hope Key Lime will rise to the level of service Pierre and Watertown deserve.”
Johnson previously sent a joint letter with Thune and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., noting Pierre and Watertown’s “strong preference” for SkyWest and asking that the USDOT “give full and fair consideration to both petitions for reconsideration.”
Gov. Kristi Noem shared disappointment in a Wednesday statement to the Capital Journal.
“We are disappointed that USDOT is disregarding Pierre and Watertown’s joint recommendation to re-bid the contract,” Noem said. “Despite this lack of support from Washington, we will continue working with any air carrier in our state to ensure South Dakotans receive high-quality air service out of both communities.”
A Wednesday statement from Rounds noted the South Dakota delegation’s unity on the topic of Pierre and Watertown’s EAS provider.
“The entire South Dakota delegation supported Pierre and Watertown during the appeal process,” Rounds said. “It’s disappointing that the administration did not give greater weight to the preference of these communities.”
Enplanements at Pierre Regional Airport passed 10,000 for the year last month. September saw 1,709 enplanements, a slight increase from July but a small decline from July, so far the airport’s busiest month with 1,924 enplanements.
Airport Manager Cameron Howard told the Capital Journal on Oct. 8 that Pierre Regional’s “busy season” is coming back around as the South Dakota hunting season gets underway.