Airline program low on funds

The Air Service Enhancement Program, or ASEP, is projected to run out of money by 2019, leaving airports in Wyoming airports at risk.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee heard a report on air service in Wyoming last week during a two-day meeting in Laramie. Shawn Burke, Wyoming Department of Transportation air service development analyst, said the ASEP is a program meant to grow air service and support critical airports. He said all nine commercial airports in Wyoming have used funds from the program.

But it’s been forecasted there will not be enough funds for all requests by July 1, 2019, Burke said. That, he said, would put air service in Wyoming communities at risk.

Since 2004, the ASEP has had a positive balance on its account. But Burke said the account’s balance since 2015 has been going down. In fiscal year 2020, it projected to be in the red by $1.4 million.

Burke said the increased cost of flight is behind the increased demand on the program’s funds. Pilot shortages, phasing out of smaller planes and Wyoming’s small population all play a role in the increased cost. Wyoming has the one of the highest ticket prices in the nation, second only to Hawaii.

The program receives currently $1.3 million a year in state funding. Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, said funding the program at that level will not take care of any growth targets. He said some airports critically dependent on the funding could see their air service terminated. Some of the airports at risk are Rock Springs, Riverton and Sheridan. He said capacity purchase agreements could solve the problem and help airports get off government subsidies.

According to WYDOT, a capacity purchase agreement would have the state contracting with one airline to purchase air service capacity in bulk. The airline would own and operate the planes. But the communities would be responsible for marketing and have influence over ticket fares and scheduling. The agreement would establish reliable daily service and easier connections at major airports.

Another program being worked on by the Commercial Air Service Council is a request for proposal. The request would be an initial outreach to the airlines to secure air service, according to documentation from WYDOT. Von Flatern said the council has already received five letters of interest from airlines. Burke said language for the requests would be finalized Sept. 11.

Devon Brubaker, airport manager of Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport said he strongly supports the initiatives. He said improving air service is important in Wyoming because the state’s second largest industry, tourism, relies on it.

Brubaker said with capacity purchase agreements, local airports could see three flights a day. He said it would allow for people to fly in, conduct business and fly out the same day.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said he was concerned about the programs, as one company might be the only choice. He said United Airlines control a lot of gates in Denver, and they might bar other airlines from using the gates. Brubaker said federal regulations mean airports like Denver International Airport must provide the gates one way or the other. But he did say there are some politics in play in who pays for the gates and who uses them.

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