Pierre city officials found out this week that Watertown city officials have been holding private talks with SkyWest Airlines and United Airlines about changing it’s twice-daily flights to Denver to once daily to Denver and once daily to Chicago.
That will change some things for passengers flying from Pierre, City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga said in remarks at the close of Tuesday’s weekly City Commissioner meeting.
News of Watertown’s city leaders making new plans with United Express — a regional element of United Airlines — operated by SkyWest to fly east as well as west was news to Pierre city leaders, Huizenga said.
“Only one month in,” Huizenga said in describing the surprise at the unilateral planning by Watertown so soon after the new contract was awarded by DOT to the SkyWest/United partnership for flights between Denver and Pierre and Watertown.
He learned Tuesday that Watertown’s city council had approved changing one of its daily flights to Denver to a flight to Chicago, Huizenga said.
For the past four years, the two cities have talked a team game in gaining federally subsidized contracts through the U.S. Department of Transportation to obtain passenger air service. The contracts were drawn up as conditional, requiring the inclusion of both cities in the same contract for in a weekly schedule of 12 round trips of Watertown-Pierre-Denver.
When California Pacific Airlines stopped flying abruptly on Jan. 18, both cities seemed to be on the same page in urging DOT to quickly allow the bid process in offering a new Essential Air Service contract to be hurried to find a new airline and start up air service again to Denver for both small cities.
It happened fast and everyone seemed happy.
On April 3, SkyWest, operating as United Express, landed its first 50-passenger jet at Pierre Regional Airport, and later the same day at Watertown’s airport.
Shortly before the first flight, SkyWest announced it would fly 13 round trips per week instead of 12, to provide more service and as a sign of how much demand the airline anticipates. Adding the extra flight would come in a few months, SkyWest officials said.
But Tuesday, Huizenga said he heard of talks going on between Watertown and SkyWest/United to start flying each day to Chicago.
“What does it mean for Pierre?” Huizenga said. For one thing, Pierre is not part of the talks for a Chicago route, he said.
SkyWest has told Mike Isaacs, manager of the Pierre airport, it will mean two flights daily from Pierre to Denver, “exclusive,” for passengers boarding in Pierre, Huizenga said.
At this point, SkyWest/United is flying one non-stop each day from Watertown and from Pierre, and then one “shared” round trip that originates in Watertown, stops in Pierre and goes on to Denver.
Under the new plan, Watertown will have one nonstop flight to Denver each day and one east to Chicago. The eastward flight would not include Pierre, Huizenga said.
That’s the plan, so far, from Watertown’s point of view, Huizenga said, as far as he understood.
But it’s not going to happen quickly.
DOT has to approve the idea. The EAS contract was approved by DOT with subsidies to SkyWest figured based on a flight schedule that included Watertown and Pierre flights to Denver.
Even Watertown city leaders say it won’t happen until at least September.
Watertown city leaders have said consistently that an eastward air service is important, that many people in and near Watertown have called for air service to Minneapolis.
The same opinion has been voiced in Pierre the past several years, too.
SkyWest has partnerships with United Airlines and the other majors, including Delta, which controls the Minneapolis hub airport.
Watertown city leaders said the news of their Chicago flight talks with SkyWest/United became public on Monday, and the response has been positive, according to a story in the Watertown Public Opinion online.
Huizenga said one result appears to be that one of Pierre’s daily flights will “overnight” in Pierre, a big plus because it provides more reliable service by not having to wait for a jet to arrive from Watertown, he said.
But the Watertown-Chicago flight plan is “not a done deal,” Huizenga said.