SkyWest continues running two daily flights at Sioux City while awaiting word on charter service request | Local news

SIOUX CITY — SkyWest Airlines continues to operate two flights per day at Sioux Gateway Airport as the Utah-based carrier awaits federal approval of its request to create a new charter service for smaller airports like Sioux City’s.

SkyWest, which flies connecting routes for United Airlines, offers one daily flight each to and from Sioux City to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Denver International Airport.

In March, SkyWest announced plans to withdraw from Sioux Gateway and 27 other small airports by July, citing a shortage of pilots. Because the flights at those airports are federally subsidized under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, the US Department of Transportation required SkyWest to continue serving those markets until a replacement carrier was selected.

Boutique Airlines was the lone carrier to submit an EAS proposal for Sioux Gateway by the DOT’s May 11 application deadline, offering to fly connecting routes to Minneapolis-St. Paul with 8-to-9-seat turboprop jets. With local travelers preferring larger aircraft , Sioux City leaders strongly recommended against the Boutique proposal. Instead, local officials accepted a deal it negotiated with SkyWest, citing the airline’s “excellent track record” at the airport and the comfort of its 50-seat regional jets.

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Under the proposed agreement, SkyWest would have temporarily reduced the minimum number of weekly flights at Sioux Gateway from 12 to 7. The airline verbally promised to restore the other flights after conditions improved.

Other airports served by SkyWest agreed to similar temporary reductions in service. In an Aug. 1 order, the DOT noted the proposed reductions in service fall below the EAS minimums of two daily round trips, six days a week, for destinations outside Alaska. the agency granted SkyWest temporary waivers to reduce service to those levels as part of its current 30-day “hold-in” order requiring SkyWest to stay at the airport until a replacement carrier is selected.

Sioux Gateway director Mike Collett said SkyWest now has the flexibility to temporarily reduce its frequency of flights, but has chosen not to exercise that option at the present time.

“We have been working closely with Sioux City airport and community leaders to ensure we are able to provide solid, reliable service for our customers,” SkyWest said in a statement. “This includes a request for additional flight schedule flexibility if it is needed in the future. We are not currently planning changes to our flight schedules at Sioux Gateway Airport and encourage travelers to continue flying Sioux Gateway Airport whenever they are planning a trip.”

In a move to counter the pilot shortage that has impacted the entire industry, SkyWest has separately asked the DOT for permission to launch a new charter service under an agency regulation known as “Part 135.” The chapter, which applies to commuter and on- demand charter services that fly aircraft with 30 seats or less, would allow SkyWest to hire pilots with as little as 250 hours, rather than the 1,500 required for pilots for scheduled carriers under “Part 121”, thus expanding the pool of eligible applicants.

“One of SkyWest’s key missions has long been to connect small and mid-size markets to the national transportation infrastructure,” SkyWest said in a statement. “SkyWest Charter will be a separate operation from SkyWest Airlines and will have the resources, standards, and operational expertise available to provide this service as well as or better than any carrier operating under Part 135 today, with jet aircraft and experienced senior pilots. In seeking commuter authority under well-established guidelines, SkyWest Charter has requested no regulation changes.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents more than 59,000 pilots from 35 US and Canadian airlines, has objected to SkyWest’s chapter service application, arguing the airline is attempting to get around Part 121 rules regarding the flight experience of first officer pilots. SkyWest should not be permitted to “degrade the margin of safety of our air transportation system by using its new alter-ego company,” to shift its current EAS small-community flying from “itself to its surrogate, to operate high performance jet aircraft under public charter rules with lesser experienced, lesser-qualified first officers on the flight deck,” the union said in a filing to the DOT posted on regulations.gov.

In a reply to the DOT, SkyWest described the union’s claims as “replete with misstatements of the facts, incomplete or inaccurate representations of the law and innuendos that miscast (SkyWest) and the authority it has requested.”

“ALPA’s objections are not based on an altruistic concern for air safety but rather unparalleled hubris implying that it, rather than the (DOT), should determine which carriers should be issued a commuter air carrier authorization, and that it, and not the FAA, should determine whether an air carrier’s proposed operation fits within existing regulations and the operating rules that should be followed by the air carrier,” SkyWest said in its filing posted on regulations.gov.

At Sioux Gateway, Skywest’s charter service would operate Bombardier CRJ200 aircraft with 30 seats — the maximum allowed under 135 rules — rather than the 50 seats now offered.

The city and airport have voiced support for SkyWest’s charter service request.

“This innovative plan would allow jet service to stay in the Sioux City market and maintain our essential connectivity to the national transportation system,” the airport said in a June 7 letter signed by Collett and Joe Kruse, president of the airport board of trustees.

SkyWest started at Sioux Gateway in October 2020 with its Denver routes, and added flights to Chicago in April 2021 under its current EAS contract, which is scheduled to run through April 1, 2024. In the first year, SkyWest received a subsidy of $2,045 per flight, or nearly $1.47 million. This year, the subsidy dropped to $880,418, and in the final year, it is scheduled to fall to $533,437.

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