By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Feds deny subsidized air service to Great Bend
USDOT rejects local appeal
new deh no EAS at GB airport pic web
Federal transportation officials notified Great Bend Thursday that the Great Bend Municipal Airport is not eligible for Essential Air Service. - photo by Tribune file photo

 It wasn’t the news Great Bend officials wanted to hear Thursday morning. They were notified by the United States Department of Transportation that their appeal to retain essential air service at the Municipal Airport had been denied.

“We were terminated from the EAS program,” airport Manager Martin Miller said.

This order means the DOT will not help the city find nor subsidize a replacement carrier. “We haven’t had an unsubsidized carrier here since 1977 and the chances of us finding an unsubsidized carrier are slim to none.”

But, in all honesty, Miller said Great Bend hasn’t had good air service for years, so it comes as no real surprise. “It’s a chicken and egg problem.”

City officials realized their appeal was a hail Mary, but they had to take a shot, he said.

“We feel that the city has done everything we could do to try to retain this funding,” City Administrator Howard Partington said. “The appeal was an attempt to show the Department of Transportation that we were the victims of circumstances caused by the airline not completing flights and not being dependable.”

However, the loss of passengers caused the costs per passenger to shoot up and exceeded the amount of subsidy per passenger allowed by DOT. “The service had deteriorated to such a point where people were just not comfortable in booking a flight and then finding that the flight was cancelled.” 

With this option off the table Miller said they are exploring other options, such as finding a charter plane that could transport passengers on an on-demand basis.

Where it started

The effort to resume EAS flights came after the most recent provider, Portland, Ore.-based Seaport Airlines, pulled out in January. The flights to the airport fell under the federal Essential Air Service program.

So, Great Bend tried unsuccessfully to convince the United States Department of Transportation that it is eligible for EAS.

According to the DOT, the Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978, gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service. The EAS program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers.

This is done by subsidizing round trips to a major hub airport. However, a 2012 change limited the amount of subsidies the feds would pay for air service to EAS communities to $1,000 per month in a calendar year, a limit being strictly enforced.

According to the DOT notice received Thursday, for the 2015, Seaport transported 462 passengers and received $697,477 in EAS subsidy. Thus, the corresponding average per passenger subsidy for Fiscal Year 2015 was $1,510. The DOT directed all interested parties to show cause within 20 days, by Feb. 24, as to why the department should not make final its tentative findings and conclusions.

So in February, the council authorized Mayor Mike Allison to submit a letter petitioning the USDOT for a waiver from the limit to keep Great Bend in the EAS program.

Local officials said Seaport had been struggling with its Great Bend operations for some time. The airline, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy shortly after closing its Great Bend operation, had improperly billed and calculated flights through Great Bend.

So, for three months of the past year, Great Bend was really receiving under $1,000. Officials said the average was still above the limit, but they might be able to show USDOT a record of mismanagement and gain pity.

That was not the case.

“To remain eligible for EAS, Great Bend must average a subsidy-per-passenger of less than $1,000 during each Fiscal Year,” the notice read. “There is no provision for the Department to waive this requirement.”

Surprise bad news

Effective Jan. 17, Seaport discontinued service to Kansas and Missouri. A surprise announcement to the city from the company said the move was due to the current pilot shortage and the resulting restructuring its route network.

In March 2014, the United States Department of Transportation selected Seaport to provide commercial air service to the Great Bend Municipal Airport. The Essential Air Service contract was for a two-year period and under the deal, Seaport would provide 18 round-trip flights per week. 

The 2014 order came shortly after the previous EAS provider Great Lakes Aviation announced it was terminating its contract one month early, leaving in question if commercial air service in Great Bend would be available.

In January, the airline also discontinued scheduled air service in California and Mexico.

At the Feb. 1 council meeting, Allison named airport Manager Martin Miller, Airport Advisory Committee President Brock McPherson, City Councilman Joel Jackson and AAC member and businessman Chris Spray to the ad hoc Air Service Review Committee. Their goal was to review proposals for a new EAS provider.