The City of Great Bend was notified this past week that it was not awarded a Small Community Air Service Development Grant, City Administrator Kendal Francis told the City Council Monday night.
“That was the one that we were hoping would help us reinstate passenger air service here in Great Bend,” he said. “So we’re going to have to start pursuing some other options.”
He hadn’t heard why the city’s application had been denied. He did said there $58 million in funding requests with only $18 million being granted.
In 2016, the airline serving Great Bend Municipal Airport went bankrupt and the city lost its Essential Air Service status, Airport Manager Martin Miller said. EAS is a program through the U.S. Department of Transportation that gives subsidies to airlines to help keep fares low in smaller communities.
In order for the DOT to maintain this service, the per-passenger subsidy had to be less than $1,000, he said. But, in 2016, this figure was much higher because of the falloff in usage.
City officials realized such a service is critical for the city’s growth and started looking at other options.
At the end of last year, they started seeking the Small Community Air Service Development grant through the DOT. This works similarly to EAS, except there is a local match required.
The city looked at working with St. George, Utah-based SkyWest Airlines which had committed to fly a 50-seat jet into Great Bend, offering round-trip flights to Denver. The total cost to make this happen for a year would be $1.2 million with the grant covering 90%.
This would have been a one-time grant, but it could actually stretch a little longer than 12 months. After that, the hope was for the service to reach a consistent 60% capacity which would make it self-sustaining.
The grant application was submitted in January. However, Miller said there were 78 applicants with only 58 being approved.
Miller said the approval process was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The recipients were airports that were hit the hardest.
Now, it is time for plan B, Miller said. It is sort of a hail Mary.
City officials are working with Kansas U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall to spark congressional action to change the parameters for Essential Air Service. They hope changes will allow Great Bend access back into the program along with the larger facilities, he said.