By Chrissy Suttles
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Air Service Improvement Council has a plan to attract reliable commercial air service to some parts of the state.
At a meeting Thursday in Riverton, the council voted to approve a draft plan to submit for review. The council, which was established when the Wyoming Legislature passed Senate File 40 earlier this year, is responsible for finding ways to attract more carriers to the state – primarily ones that would serve at least four critical communities.
During a day-long meeting, the group reviewed criteria for a request for proposals that the Wyoming Aeronautics Commission will eventually release to potential carriers for bidding.
The chosen carrier would provide up to three daily flights to and from Denver International Airport from airports that join the agreement, which would cost the state $15 million over 10 years.
Through the program, the state would offer minimum revenue guarantee funding for a capacity purchase agreement with an airline. The carrier would be paid per block hour, or from the moment the aircraft door closes prior to takeoff to the moment it opens after landing.
The council agreed on a 60-40 profit-sharing framework, where communities that opt in would share 40 percent of the cost and eventual profit with the state.
Communities participating in the minimum revenue guarantee with an airline currently use the model, said Joseph Pickering, senior consultant at Mead and Hunt. But he said communities are unlikely to see an immediate profit.
The state will only consider carriers with code-share agreements, which means smaller regional flights connect to larger flights, with baggage checked through to the passenger’s final destination.
A contract with the carrier would likely be a nine-year agreement, with opportunities for re-negotiation every three years.
“This would provide sustainable air service for the communities, but allow us some flexibility as time goes forward,” said Bill Panos, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
The plan would provide critical service to at-risk regional airports that, as of July 1, 2019, would otherwise be left behind when the Air Service Enhancement Program dissolves. In 2004, the Legislature established the program to bolster Wyoming’s aviation economy, but it is unlikely funding will be restored during next year’s session.
Talks included benchmarks to measure success, using metrics similar to that of the Air Service Enhancement Program. These metrics include long-term performance, reliability, average airfare costs and overall financial performance.
The new effort would heavily emphasize a statewide marketing campaign for the program and participating communities. The WYDOT Aeronautics Commission splits marketing funding down the middle with each community.
Members then decided to amend the proposal to work closely with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Executive Council to identify carriers and programs to best serve the state as a whole.
“Air service is critical to the state of Wyoming and to communities,” said Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Development in Gillette, during public comment.
“If we lose air service, businesses in the state will suffer tremendously.
“Speaking with airlines, they do not care about Wyoming; they are going to go wherever they can to make the most money. I am glad to see the idea of marketing in the budget, because people in Wyoming fly.”
Panos said the council’s goal, at this time, is not to hash out every detail.
“We have to start with a replacement program. That is what the Legislature asked us to come up with. A year from now, the program changes dramatically, and the state funding of airports will not be met, so some airports will lose service if we don’t do something.”
The council will now submit the plan to Mead and the Legislature’s Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee and Joint Appropriations Committee for approval by Aug. 1. The group will next meet Sept. 11 in Rock Springs.