The Kansas congressional delegation has sent a letter to the United States Department of Transportation seeking continued air service to Great Bend. The letter supports a petition filed by city officials pleading the DOT to reconsider its order proposing the termination of the Essential Air Service at Great Bend Municipal Airport.
In early February, the DOT issued its order. This came on the heels of Portland, Ore.-based SeaPort Airlines prematurely terminated its contract facility on Jan. 17.
In the letter, Congressman Tim Huelskamp and Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran detailed how inconsistent service at the airport over the past two years has resulted in Kansans unable to utilize fully the service. Over 50 percent of scheduled flights by SeaPort were cancelled in 2015.
SeaPort and the DOT both claim a shortage in pilots to fly those flights is the cause for cancellations and inconsistent service.
“Rural communities in Barton County and the surrounding region need reliable air service to thrive,” Huelskamp said. “Kansans deserve another try at this service, with a consistent carrier.”
If a pilot shortage is the true cause of problems facing Great Bend and other rural airports across the United States, The DOT should work with Federal Aviation Administration to solve this problem, Huelskamp said.
Earlier, airport Manager Martin Miller said Seaport had been struggling with its Great Bend operations for some time and the airline, which has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, had improperly billed and calculated flights through Great Bend.
“We want to express our support for continued Essential Air Service (EAS) eligibility in rural Kansas at the Great Bend Airport,” reads the letter addressed to Brandon Belford, DOT deputy assistant secretary. “Following the Feb. 4, 2016, show cause order regarding the proposed termination of EAS in Great Bend, we believe there is sufficient evidence to support reconsideration of EAS eligibility.”
Air service in Great Bend has been inconsistent for over two years leading to lower than anticipated usage. “With poor and unpredictable service, passenger loads declined more than 77 percent since Great Bend last had consistent service in 2013,” the letter reads.
The substandard completion rates of flights to and from Great Bend are largely due to SeaPort’s difficulty in securing pilots amid a national pilot shortage, a problem exacerbated by changes to FAA regulations regarding pilot experience levels and rest and duty periods.
According to the letter, without pilots, many of the scheduled flights in and out of Great Bend were not completed, leaving potential passengers to cancel trips or utilize other airports instead. “We believe this should be taken into consideration before a final determination is reached regarding the future of Great Bend’s EAS eligibility.”
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, Miller said 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.
At last report, Great Bend was receiving over $1,500.
EAS was originally established to ensure continuous air service to rural communities, the lawmakers said in their letter. The failure of air carriers to meet their contract obligations is principally responsible for the sharp rise in per passenger subsidy at Great Bend Municipal Airport.
“We respectfully request EAS eligibility be maintained until a carrier can be obtained that will be able to support consistent service to rebuild passenger counts and utilization in Great Bend.”
According to the petition filed Feb. 23, the Airline Deregulation mandated the DOT to provide the EAS communities with access to the national air transportation system. “When this access is limited to, on average, one flight every other day, as the last 12 months of service average, there can be no reasonable hope for ‘access.’ Since early 2014, Great Bend air service has been reduced to a new record level in the EAS program,” the petition reads.
The petition documented the discrepancies that shed doubt on the accuracy of SeaPort’s reporting. “We therefore respectfully submit that the statutory termination of Great Bend based on the $1,000 cap in passenger subsidy would be founded on inaccurate information, and should be waived.”
Great Bend requested that its eligibility be maintained until such time that a carrier suitable to rebuild passenger counts is available to bid air service acceptable to both DOT and the community.
“We believe we can find such a carrier that will provide usable air service that our residents will support and that air service will comply with the $1,000 maximum subsidy per O&D requirements,” the document reads. “We request a waiver from this termination notice, and propose that we willingly go dormant in terms of EAS air service, and that we will not return to the Department and request an EAS subsidy until we have mapped out precisely a carrier, a service pattern and an economic model that will ensure high ridership and full compliance with all EAS regulations.”
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.