The two-year contract to provide air service to the Great Bend Municipal Airport and other Essential Air Service facilities in Western Kansas expires at the end of September, and three carriers want the air travel business in those communities.
But, this all may be a moot point. Congress is debating the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill, which includes EAS funding, and there is pressure to reduce or eliminate the program that provides subsidies for flight connections from smaller communities to larger ones.
The deadline to submit bids to provide EAS to Great Bend was May 13 and officials have until June 15 to decide which bid to approve, said Great Bend airport Manager Martin Miller. The same processes is underway in Dodge City, Garden City, Hays, Liberal and Salina, the only other EAS airports in Kansas.
“The United States Department of Transportation seeks bids,” Miller said. The carriers who have expressed an interest in Great Bend are Cheyenne, Wyo.,-based Great Lakes Aviation (who is the current provider at Great Bend), Portland, Ore.,-based SeaPort and St. Louis, Mo.,-based Air Choice One.
The FAA falls under the USDOT, which administers the EAS program.
“We now have to analyze the bids,” he said. “The City of Great Bend has formed a fact-finding committee to research all proposals.” One of the requirements for the Great Bend bid is for the carrier to offer 12 flights per week to either Denver or Kansas City.
Now, Great Lakes has flights to all the state’s EAS airports. However, not all the potential providers offer that.
So, Miller said local officials are also working with their counterparts in the other cities to determine what is in everyone’s best interest. In the coming weeks, each of the companies will make presentations to woo the business.
However, in the current budget-slashing frenzy in Washington, the EAS is a sticking point, Miller said. If it doesn’t get axed, it may be cut, perhaps to cover only airports that handle at least 10 passengers each day.
At Great Bend, there are three passengers who board out-going flights daily, plus those who disembark from an incoming flight. These all may count towards the total, giving Great Bend close to the 10 needed.
“It’s all uncertain,” Miller said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.” They also don’t know when.
The FAA bill also contains money for airport improvement projects. “This law affects us in a lot of ways,” Miller said.
For now, he said, it is business as usual. There will at least be EAS at Great Bend until the end of the current federal fiscal year Sept. 30.
According to the DOT, the EAS program was born out of the Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978. The goal was to guarantee small communities would continue to receive a minimal level of scheduled air service.
Great Bend became an EAS site in 1978.
USDOT subsidizes 154 airports in the United States and Puerto Rico, and of those, 44 are in Alaska. The EAS budget jumped from $50 million on FY 2001 to $113 million in FY 2002 after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The FY 2009 budget is $123 million.
However, as Miller noted, that budget hangs in limbo.
Among other criteria, to qualify for EAS, an airport must have service to a hub airport, service with at least 15-passenger aircraft, average at least 11 enplanements each day and meet flight availability guidelines. Over the years, the program has been streamlined by excluding airports within 70 miles of a larger facility.
While USDOT takes bids, it is not strictly a low-bid system. In selecting a carrier, the department looks at service reliability, arrangements with a larger carrier at the hub and community views.
After receiving the community’s views, it designates the air carrier and specifies the routing, frequency and aircraft type, subsidy rate, and effective period of the rate.