Garden City — Garden City commissioners are considering changing the city's air service provider, which might mean dropping daily flights to Denver in exchange for daily flights to Dallas.
A study commissioned by the city found that a majority of daily air travelers in southwest Kansas drive to the Wichita airport and Dallas is the top destination of most of those travelers, The Garden City Telegram reported Wednesday.
Currently, Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Airlines provides service at the municipal airport about 10 miles southeast of town. It provides daily flights to and from Denver.
The airport must have 10,000 passengers every year to qualify for $1 million in federal funds under the Essential Air Service program. The airport has been close to the threshold — 10,130 passengers last year and 10,122 in 2009. But Great Lakes in February dropped its service to Kansas City, which had brought in about 1,000 passengers.
Aviation Director Rachelle Powell told commissioners Tuesday that a recently-completed passenger study and market analysis found that the airport could boost traffic if it chose a southern air route rather than the Denver flights.
The study found about 228,700 commercial airline passengers originated from southwest Kansas from October 2009 to September 2010. Of those, nearly 80 percent use either the Wichita or Amarillo, Texas airports rather than airports in Garden City, Dodge City or Liberal. The Garden City airport captures only 8 percent of the southwest Kansas daily air travelers. Combined with Dodge City and Liberal attract a total of 15 percent of that traffic.
"If we want to expand service, we want to capture those people who are driving to Amarillo and to Wichita," Powell told commissioners. "We know we can't capture all of it, but maybe we can get a better percentage than we are now."
The commissioners on Tuesday reviewed four airline bids for EAS service at the Garden City airport.
Great Lakes submitted a proposal to continue daily service to Denver. Its EAS contract with the airport expires in October.
American Eagle, the predominant regional carrier for American Airlines, is offering to host two daily round-trip flights to Dallas per day on a 44-seater aircraft. Eagle's offer would require the airport to pay at least $150,000 in start-up costs, Powell said, the only airline of the four that would require such costs. And although the EAS contract requires a two-year contract, Eagle wants 120 days for a trial run, Powell said.
Despite those costs and stipulations, some city officials said it might be an attractive offer.
City Manager Matt Allen said having Dallas flights might help the city boost its air traffic and move away from federally-subsidized air service.
"Our goal is life after (Essential Air Service)," Allen said. "We don't want to be on this airline welfare or funding forever. We'd like to go bigger than that. ... There are risks. But there's risks in sitting around and letting viable options go as well."
Among the other airline bids, Air Choice One is offering 36 flights per week to Wichita on a nine-seater plane and Skywest 19 flights per week, also to Denver.
Powell said the airport needed to submit its decision to federal authorities by the end of June.