KEARNEY — SkyWest Airlines announced Thursday it intends to drop federally subsidized air service at Kearney and 28 other US airports, including North Platte and Scottsbluff.
SkyWest’s 90-day notice filed with the federal Department of Transportation is just the first step in a long process, so it likely won’t cause immediate changes in flight schedules. However, the cause of SkyWest’s actions — a chronic pilot shortage complicated by COVID-19 — has hampered smaller regional airlines nationwide in recent years.
Kearney Airport Manager Jim Lynaugh was disappointed, but not shocked, to learn about SkyWest’s plans because they are announced when Kearney Regional Airport is logging record passenger volume.
“Enplanements have been very good. The last four to five months have been very good,” Lynaugh said. “But a lot of the regional companies have struggled with pilot shortages the last few years.”
City Manager Michael Morgan said the city of Kearney anticipates 30,000 departures this year. That would be a 4,800-passenger increase from the 25,200 in 2021.
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He said people in the Kearney area have embraced the federally subsidized service — a fact that likely will come into play when the DOT begins recruiting airlines to replace SkyWest.
“The best thing is for people to continue using the service. We’re going to be looking for airlines and they (DOT) will be looking at numbers,” Morgan said.
Headquartered in St. George, Utah, SkyWest has a fleet of 450 jetliners. All of the 29 cities in the SkyWest filing serve connector flights for United Airlines.
SkyWest flies as United Express and is advertising $40,000 bonuses, profit sharing and 401(k) matches for pilots. However, struggles with COVID-19 aren’t the only challenge to overcome in order to put pilots in the cockpit.
Lynaugh said younger pilots typically learn the ropes working for smaller airlines, and eventually graduate to “the big stuff,” meaning full-size jetliners flying major routes and paying a lot more.
“There’s a shortage of pilots, but to what degree I don’t know,” he said.
SkyWest’s actions come as Kearney is planning for a $9 million terminal remodeling and expansion. Parking already has been enlarged at the terminal to accommodate record passenger numbers, and the FAA built a $12 million main runway at Kearney in 2020. City officials worked with SkyWest to expand local service by adding Chicago O’Hare to Kearney’s daily flights to and from Denver.
Morgan said under its contract with DOT, SkyWest is required to continue air service while replacement airlines are recruited. Besides the three Nebraska cities, SkyWest’s notice included plans to drop EAS service to various airports in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
“This has never happened in EAS (essential air service) history to notify 29 cities,” Morgan said.