Salina — Airport authorities in Salina and Topeka are joining forces to improve commercial air service in the two cities, with hopes of securing flights to hub airports in Denver and St. Louis.
The cities have applied for a one-time Small Community Air Service Development grant of $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Local matches of $400,000 from each community would bring the total to $1.6 million.
Key to the plan is luring Great Lakes Aviation to provide an average of 2.55 daily round-trip flights from St. Louis to Denver, with stops in Topeka and Salina.
"Our ability to stimulate job creation and capital investment will be enhanced with approval of this air service development grant," Dennis Lauver, president and chief executive officer of the Salina Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.
Of the $1.6 million being sought, according to the grant application, $1.5 million would be available as a revenue guarantee program to help the airline with startup costs.
Salina can also obtain $600,000 more in Essential Air Service money, and the consortium will apply for $1.5 million from the state's Fair Fares Program.
Officials hope the new service would be in place in 2008. The application says the service "should be fully self-sustaining on a year-round basis no later that the second year of operation."
Tim Rogers, executive director of the Airport Authority, said Tuesday the state and federal assistance "would provide the means to significantly improve air service for two important regions of the state."
Salina is currently served by Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group doing business through its Wichita subsidiary, Air Midwest, which in turn is doing business as U.S. Airways Express.
The service offers flights from Salina to Kansas City, Mo., with stops in Manhattan. But U.S. Airways will sever the Manhattan-Salina tie June 3 and offer nonstop flights to Kansas City from each airport.
Boardings at Salina have dropped from 6,500 in 2001 to 2,029 last year. The application lists the combined Salina-Topeka regions as home to more than 350,000 people.
Topeka and Salina are losing most of their potential air travel business to customers who opt to drive to Wichita or Kansas City to board planes.
Cheaper fares apparently aren't the reason, however. A consultant's study done for the Salina Airport Authority found that average airfares from the city in March cost 11 percent less than at other regional airports, yet Kansas City and Wichita draw nearly 97 percent of all travelers from the Salina area.
While Topeka's area has not been studied, the application presumes that Topeka's results are similar.
Topeka's Forbes Field is served only by Allegiant Air, offering twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas. Topeka's current service provides no connecting flights to other destinations, no access to network carriers and no access to local air service.