The call from Seaport Airlines came Friday. Great Bend city officials were told the Portland, Ore.-based carrier would cease service to Great Bend as of that Saturday.
“We were advised the night before,” said airport Manager Martin Miller. Great Bend is among several communities to have their service ended.
“We regret to announce that effective Jan. 15, scheduled air service in California and Mexico have been discontinued, and effective Jan. 17, service to Kansas and Missouri will be discontinued,” a statement on the airline’s website said. “Due to the current pilot shortage and its toll on our ability to do business, SeaPort is restructuring our 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.
“This has happened before,” Miller said of a airline backing out before its contract had expired. “This is not an uncommon practice in small communities.”
Miller said the city’s options are limited now. The Department of Transportation, which oversees the EAS program, could ask Seaport to stay or to find a replacement to finish contract.
“But their ability to do so is unlikely,” Miller said. “I don’t anticipate seeing any service until the next round of carrier contractor bids” which will be conducted by DOT in June or July.
“I am hopeful we’ll be included in a new process for carriers,” he said. This would also include Dodge City, Garden City, Liberal and Hays.
Seaport has been in Salina for 10 years before it pulled out of there, Miller said. However, Salina is on a different bidding cycle and has already found a new carrier after three months without service.
Miller said he believes there will be parties interested in bidding for the Great Bend market and the city should be fine this time around.
However, the long-term picture may not be as bright. Miller said passenger counts out of Great Bend have been low due to poor service over the past year. Unless the next carrier is reliable and consistent, “we could be at risk of losing eligibility for Essential Air Service down the road.”
The Seaport website reported tat closures are effective immediately at the following other cities: Sacramento, Calf.; Visalia, Calf.; Burbank, Calf.; San Diego, Calf.; Imperial, Calf.; San Felipe, Mexico; and Kansas City, Mo.
Service in the Pacific Northwest, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas will continue to operate normally, as scheduled and without disruption, the Seaport statement said. “Customers can be assured that they will continue to receive the quality customer service they have come to expect from SeaPort Airlines on these routes.”
The Seaport statement noted that customers with reservations for impacted routes should contact 888-573-2767 for a full refund.
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 two to four round trips a day to a major hub airport. The department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.