SHERIDAN — The Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Commission unanimously approved a contract between the state and SkyWest Airlines Monday, officially selecting SkyWest as the state’s preferred carrier for four critical air service communities, including Sheridan.
Whether the state executes the contract will depend on those four communities — which also includes Gillette, Riverton and Rock Springs — signing memorandums of understanding agreeing to participate.
For Sheridan County Airport, the approval of the contract means it will have to work with its partners over the coming weeks to decide whether it will continue with its current partner Key Lime Air — which operates out of Sheridan as Denver Air Connection — or sign on to the state contract and switch to SkyWest.
The approval of the contract gives local officials hard numbers they can use to compare the two services. With the contract in hand, Renee Obermueller, who works as the administrator of the Sheridan and Johnson counties Critical Air Service Team, said she hopes CAST can work with its partners to make a relatively quick decision, ideally by mid-July.
WYDOT said it could not provide The Press with a copy of the contract until the contract has been fully executed.
According to members of WYDOT’s Aeronautics Division — which drafted the contract with SkyWest — a move to SkyWest would boost air service in all four communities at little to no additional cost. That determination is based on SkyWest’s ability to leverage industry-wide partnerships, its marketing capabilities and its use of larger jets that have roughly the same fuel costs as the planes the DAC uses.
Air service development analyst Shawn Burke said a partnership between Sheridan County Airport and SkyWest would cost roughly the same as the current agreement with the Denver Air Connection, but would increase passenger loads and enplanements by 60 percent.
While the specifics of the agreement are still confidential, Obermueller confirmed the local cost would be similar for both services.
Enplanements — which federal agencies define as the number of passengers departing an airport — are an important benchmark for Sheridan County Airport, because it currently receives $1 million in federal funding for maintenance of its facilities. That funding is only available to airports that see at least 10,000 enplanements annually.
According to numbers provided by CAST, the Denver Air Connection saw 19,514 passengers and 10,769 enplanements in 2018; according to Obermueller, roughly 800 of those enplanements were free half-hour rides offered to community members. With the switch to SkyWest, Burke said Sheridan County Airport could increase its enplanements to close to 16,000.
In total, Burke said he expects a partnership between all four communities and SkyWest would result in 40,000 more passengers and 20,000 more enplanements.
Obermueller said the draft of the contract she has includes language that would protect CAST and its partners in the event that the service falls short of those performance benchmarks.
“Furthermore, if the community decides to move forward with SkyWest, then we would enter into an MOU with the state which would contain additional language and additional benchmarks,” Obermueller said.
If CAST does decide to stick with the Denver Air Connection, it will likely lose state funding which has been critical to subsidizing the local service.
The state currently subsidizes 60 percent of the DAC’s minimum revenue guarantee, which amounts to $596,937.