CHEYENNE – Following a recent email Mayor Marian Orr sent to City Council President Rocky Case about unseemly reports related to Cheyenne’s commercial air service, Case held a work session Monday to help clear the air.
Those who gave reports at the work session said commercial air service has been going well since American Airlines, marketed as American Eagle, began providing daily nonstop service last November between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Cheyenne Regional Airport through SkyWest Airlines. Each CRJ200 regional jet seats roughly 50 passengers.
That service began seven months after Great Lakes Airlines ended once-a-week turboprop service to Denver International Airport. SkyWest increased the service to twice daily flights May 4, and those are scheduled to continue until Sept. 3 before returning to once a day.
In her email to Case and several other council members, Orr said she has heard “that we send an average 10 passengers per flight down to Denver, as with weight and flight restrictions, they are limited in passengers.” This included her chief of staff, Eric Fountain, who she said tried to fly out of Cheyenne to attend a conference in Dallas.
As a result, Orr said she had concerns about meeting the terms of the minimum revenue guarantee for the airline.
“We have received several complaints that passengers were made to re-book in Denver. Many,” the mayor said later in the email. “I can’t help but question if with the new funding scheme – the airline is perhaps purposely diverting 10 passengers a flight thereby to not meet the MRG.”
Though no airline officials were present at the work session, local airport and state air service officials offered information to contradict those rumors.
Shawn Burke, airline analyst for the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, said the controllable reliability for the local air service is at 98.83%. Factoring in non-controllable reliability, the average is about 95%. This is about one to two percentage points lower than the Wyoming and Dallas averages, he said.
The biggest cause of flight delays and cancellations at the airport was weather, Burke said.
At the start of the meeting, Tim Barth, director of aviation at the airport, said he wanted to make sure he gave people accurate information to help dispel any misinformation that was circulating.
When reached by phone Monday evening, Orr said the reason she sent the email was she hadn’t received any updates from Case on any regular basis from the airport board meetings. Case is the city’s representative on the airport board.
Case said he decided to hold the work session as a status update on local air service.
Orr was present at the work session and acknowledged the reports of terrible weather in June impacting flights. But after the meeting, she said, “What they didn’t cover is that they have had to have some passengers sent down to Denver and questions about MRG.”
She said with as much money as the city is providing for the minimum revenue guarantee subsidy, it needs to be given the full picture of the air service’s status.
The Cheyenne Regional Air Focus Team signed a one-year contract with SkyWest last year, guaranteeing minimum annual revenue of $2.3 million – on par with what the group raised this year in local, state, federal and private funds. This includes $580,000 through the Air Service Enhancement Program, $1.2 million in approved city and county funds and roughly $120,000 in private donations.
That money – or a portion of it – is only paid to the airline if revenue from ticket sales fails to reach the guaranteed minimum amount.
About 23,000 passengers have been served out of the airport since the service was launched, Barth said, adding the service has kept 12,000 people from driving to Denver to fly from DIA.
“It’s pretty amazing that we’ve already moved one-third of the population of Cheyenne in the past nine months,” Barth said.
In June, horrible weather nationwide heavily impacted air travel everywhere, said Nathan Banton, general manager of aviation at Cheyenne Regional Airport.
American Airlines canceled a record number of flights that month, and on top of the weather, the Boeing 737 MAX plane was grounded due to mechanical issues. American Airlines had to remove 24 MAX planes from its flight schedule June 8 through Sept. 3.
The airline is also canceling 115 flights a day due to the aircraft being grounded.
The weather monitoring system at the local airport also was impacted multiple times this summer due to lightning strikes, Banton said. The National Weather Service had to replace about 30 components of the weather system.
Weather observation reports are required for air service, Banton said.
Councilman Scott Roybal asked if there was anything being done to the equipment to make this situation less likely to happen in the future. Banton said the National Weather Service is looking at ways to “harden the system” and also have a spare part for every component. The airport is also looking at training a person to become a weather observer and supply the weather reports if the system fails.
Despite the rough June, the airport has a 73.47% on-time performance, Burke said. This is about one to two percentage points lower than the Wyoming average and the average at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.
Councilman Ken Esquibel asked for the percentage of empty seats per flight, and Burke replied the average low for flights is about 65%, though that number fluctuates, depending on the time in the week. For instance, weekend flights are going to be more full than weekday flights, Burke said.
Despite the turbulent weather, the airport has caused some positive economic impacts in Cheyenne, officials said.
Since the new terminal opened last fall, it has employed 15 people and has had a huge impact on the local community, Barth said. Visit Cheyenne is seeing this growth through the four national conventions it was able to host this summer using air service in Cheyenne.
The new service is allowing Cheyenne to be competitive for conventions that require air service, Lori Schoene from CRAFT, confirmed. Cheyenne is also listed as an approved airport for governmental travel.
Also, if someone is trying to get from Cheyenne to Chicago, it’s actually cheaper and sometimes quicker to fly from Cheyenne, Schoene said.
On a cost and time breakdown of the best-case scenarios to get to Chicago, flying from Denver would take 7 hours and 20 minutes and cost $356.60. If someone wanted to fly from Cheyenne, it would take 7 hours and 30 minutes and cost $330.35.
“We all know what you get when you drive to Denver to fly out,” Schoene said. “You get all the road construction on I-25, you get to pay for parking, and you get to stand in a long security line.”
The airport is doing a marketing campaign to help change people’s mentalities surrounding air travel out of Cheyenne. The campaign’s tagline is “Fly over Denver, not through it.”