No. 6: American Eagle brings Dallas route to G.C.

12/24/2011

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram staff.

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram staff.

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

American Eagle has landed.

That was the highly-anticipated news in mid-November, when federal transportation authorities announced that Garden City's first choice — regional jet flights to and from Dallas — had been awarded to the community under the Essential Air Service program.

Garden City officials received notice of the news on Nov. 14, from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which selected the airline to service the Garden City Regional Airport with 14 round-trip, federally-subsidized flights per week to and from the Texas metropolis on a 44-seat jet.

Local officials were hoping for that very decision, in anticipation that the southern destination would boost traffic at the city's airport and help the community wean itself of its reliance on the EAS program, a federal program that makes commercial air service at small or rural airports like the ones in western Kansas possible.

"We're excited about our service to Dallas, as it has been a goal for the community for the past 20 years," Rachelle Powell, director of aviation in Garden City, said in a release following the DOT's November announcement. "Garden City and Dodge City worked closely to provide convenient and affordable regional air service options for southwest Kansas. ... Within less than an hour's drive, citizens will have the option to fly into two large hub airports."

The same DOT order has selected Great Lakes Airlines as EAS provider for Dodge City, Liberal, Hays and Great Bend, with continued flights to Denver.

Once American Eagle begins providing service at the local municipal airport, it will replace Great Lakes' 19-seat turboprop aircraft service to and from Denver, a move that is slated to begin at the start of April.

American Eagle's bid to federal authorities to provide the twice-daily round-trip flights comes at a federal subsidy cost to the DOT of nearly $2.92 million per year, the most expensive of four proposals made to Garden City under the EAS program earlier this summer. The Garden City Commission voted unanimously in early June to choose American Eagle's proposal over three others, despite the higher price tag that they feared might deter the DOT.

City officials opted for Eagle based on positive feedback from the community, in addition to passenger traffic studies completed by Sixel Consulting Group, an Oregon-based consultant specializing in air transportation, all in the hopes of enhancing future air service at the municipal airport about 10 miles southeast of town.

Passenger numbers have been steadily decreasing the last couple of years.

Powell has said that based on Sixel's newest study of southwest Kansas flyers, completed this past summer, the municipal airport likely would bolster traffic if it chose a southern air route in lieu of the airport's current flights to and from Denver.

According to Sixel's study, which analyzed passenger traffic and ticket sales from October 2009 to September 2010, about 228,700 commercial airline passenger originated from southwest Kansas in that time frame. That's about 313 passengers per day who travel to and from this region.

Out of those travelers, nearly 80 percent used either the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport or the Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in lieu of the Garden City, Dodge City or Liberal airports. About 50 percent of air travelers head solely to the Wichita airport, researchers had found.

In addition, the Garden City airport captures only 8 percent of the southwest Kansas daily air travelers. Combined, the tri-cities in southwest Kansas capture 15 percent of the total traffic originating in this corner of the state.

Based on those numbers, and Eagle's success in boosting passenger traffic in places like Manhattan, which now boasts non-subsidized daily flights to and from both Dallas and Chicago, Garden City officials fought to bolster their case to the DOT to earn the Eagle flights.

The city successfully vied for a $250,000 award from The Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas, which administers funds from the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program, or KAAP, marking the first time the funds had been offered outside Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport.

Garden City officials also looked to their neighbor 50 miles to the east — Dodge City — to help bring down the cost of subsidizing the service to the DOT.

In a compromise reached between city officials back in August, Dodge City agreed to bump the Dodge City Regional Airport's service of four daily Denver flights down to three, if the DOT desired to use the remaining federal EAS subsidy savings toward Garden City's American Eagle subsidy requirement, amounting to about half a million dollars.

The compromise between the two communities proved fruitful.

"We'd would like to thank our colleagues with the city of Dodge City for their part in creating this regional air service," Powell said at the time.

The Dodge City Commission's August decision holds a stipulation that should American Eagle discontinue its service at any time in Garden City, the fourth Great Lakes Denver flight should be reinstated to their city airport.

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