KEARNEY – Reluctantly, Kearney is breaking off its four-year relationship with SkyWest Airline.
The Kearney City Council on Wednesday acknowledged it had been a good ride, but voted 5-0 to ask the federal Department of Transportation to name Denver Air Connection as Kearney Regional Airport’s new federally subsidized airline.
It was a difficult decision, given the uncertainty a nationwide pilot shortage has caused for small markets such as Kearney’s and the airlines struggling to serve them.
“We probably have a stronger short-term relationship with DAC,” Councilman Bruce Lear said about switching to the Denver airline.
Lear said SkyWest proved that, given the opportunity, Kearney travelers can support a reliable airline.
Passenger volume ballooned with SkyWest, setting monthly boarding records in response to the Utah-based airline’s reliable service, low fares and connections at Denver and Chicago airports.
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In fact, SkyWest’s boardings in Kearney exceeded 25,000 in 2021, a year that included 2 ½ months of COVID-reduced boardings.
Kearney officials were shocked in March when SkyWest filed a notice it planned to end service in 31 cities, including Kearney.
Lear said that, given SkyWest’s excellent service and fares, it will be difficult for travelers to switch to DAC. Councilwoman Tami James Moore echoed Lear.
“I feel bad that the citizens will have some difficulty,” she said.
But DAC has pilots and SkyWest is struggling to retain its pilots, said City Manager Michael Morgan, who has been researching options to replace SkyWest. What Morgan found is that before the pilot shortage became big news, DAC gave its pilots pay increases.
“When it was working, SkyWest was working well. Maybe we can get back with them someday, ”Morgan said.
He reported that SkyWest’s current strategy is to reduce its service in smaller markets by flying 30-passenger aircraft that don’t require pilots with as much training and experience.
The switch to 30-passenger aircraft contrasts with SkyWest’s strategy during the heydays in Kearney when the average load was almost 80% ons 50-passenger jetliners to Denver and about 63% to Chicago.
The bid that DAC submitted to the DOT for Kearney’s air service differs from the current contract in some important ways. DAC wants to provide 12 flights per week to Denver and isn’t interested in flights to Chicago. Also, travelers going directly to Denver would book their flights on Denver Air Connection.com.
DAC would fly 50-passenger jetliners. Occasionally, when passenger counts are lower, DAC would fly 30-passenger jetliners.
Travelers flying beyond Denver can book on united.com, American.com, Travelocity, Expedia or other travel booking websites.
Also, DAC has interline agreements with United Airlines / American so passengers will have access to the United and American network. Baggage connecting to or from the United / American network need only be checked in the originating city and will transfer to United / American flights.
Most council members said DAC falls short of what travelers currently have, but SkyWest is sorting out its pilot problems and appears to be leaning toward aircraft that are too small if Kearney passenger volume remains at current levels.
The vote to switch to DAC was 5-0. DAC’s proposal calls for a two-year contract.
Morgan said DOT will review DAC’s proposal and decide whether to accept DAC as Kearney’s preferred airline. After the DOT completes the review and accepts DAC, the change in airlines will occur. Morgan said there won’t be a lapse in service, but travelers will need to switch bookings from the old airline to the new.