Airport

A twin engine plane takes off Wednesday morning from the Casper/Natrona County Airport International Airport. Federal subsidies are set to continue to the Cody and Laramie airports despite initial concerns that they would be halted.

Josh Galemore, Casper Star-Tribune

Despite President Donald Trump’s budget request last spring to eliminate subsidized air service to Cody and Laramie, it appears that both airports will continue to have the cost of commercial flights covered in part by the federal government.

U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that United Airlines had won a bid to provide winter flights to Cody under the Essential Air Service program, and Laramie airport manager Jack Skinner said he expects Laramie to continuing receiving subsidized service when its contract comes up for renewal, likely in the spring.

“We’re always leery and trying to stay on top of what’s happening back there in Washington,” Skinner said. “But we believe they’re going to continue it because it’s been a good program for rural communities like Laramie.”

Trump’s budget request to Congress last March sought to eliminate the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes commercial flights to rural communities across the United States. But Congress has final say over federal spending and did not choose to eliminate the program.

That’s good news for Laramie, which has all of its flights subsidized, as well as Cody, which requires a subsidy only for commercial flights during winter months when the tourism industry slows.

“There’s always proposed reductions or cuts to the Essential Air Service but Cody has performed exceptionally well,” said Bob Hooper, manager of the Yellowstone Regional Airport.

He cited the airport’s relatively low per-passenger subsidy, saying that it hovered in the $20 to $40 range, whereas some Wyoming airports, like Worland, are theoretically eligible for subsidies of up to $1,000 per passenger.

Only Cody and Laramie are currently served by the EAS program.

United’s new contract to provide service to Cody guarantees the airline an annual payment of $850,000 to provide 14 nonstop trips each week from Cody to Denver between October and May.

Hooper said the federal transportation department handles EAS contract renewals so he did not know when Laramie’s contract would be put out to bid or what the terms would be. SkyWest currently serves the university town for $2.18 million per year.

Economic benefit

While year-round commercial air services is an obvious boon to Cody and Laramie — Hooper said an official estimate pegged the benefit to Cody at $40 million per year — it also ties into Wyoming’s larger efforts to diversify its economy.

Gov. Matt Mead’s Endow economic diversification initiative has identified reliable air service throughout the state to be an important foundation for moving Wyoming away from a natural resource-focused economy.

“Commercial air service is a significantly limiting factor,” Endow’s Jerimiah Reiman said earlier this year. “There’s a lack of air service particularly to global destinations.”

The Wyoming Department of Transportation presented an ambitious fix to the state’s reliance on commercial air carriers, who can currently decide whether and when to provide service — allowing the fortune’s of Cowboy State communities to rise and fall based on the whims of national corporations.

WYDOT proposed effectively creating its own airline, determining which communities would receive service as well as schedules, ensuring, for example, that it was possible for business people to catch an early morning flight into Casper or Rock Springs.

The state would contract with the same regional providers, like SkyWest or GoJet, that United and Delta Air Lines use on branded flights to connect relatively small communities, like those in Wyoming, with major hubs in Denver and Salt Lake City. These arrangements are known as capacity purchase agreements.

“This idea of capacity purchase agreements, for decades, has worked very well for airlines,” WYDOT director Bill Panos told lawmakers last summer.

Air service obstacles

Commercial air service in Wyoming has been battered over the last decade as federal safety regulations have starved regional carriers of pilots and shattered historic business models. More, as airlines phase out older and generally smaller jets, they are replacing them with larger planes that are harder to fill on flights to and from small communities.

Lawmakers decided in October not to move forward with WYDOT’s air service proposal, choosing to maintain the current system under which all air service in Wyoming outside of Casper is subsidized either by the federal government or by the state.

Wyoming offers revenue guarantees to several airlines flying in and out of some smaller cities such as Riverton.

WYDOT had requested $29.5 million to $37.2 million over 10 years to implement the new air service program, according to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

Transportation committee co-chair Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said at the time that while the proposal was not ready for approval he remained interested in the issue.

“The issue is not dead, and I think it’s going to keep coming up,” Greear said.

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State Politics Reporter

Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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