News that SkyWest Airlines intends to halt passenger service to 29 airports across the country, including Barkley Regional Airport in Paducah, Kentucky and Cape Girardeau Regional Airport in Missouri, has brought these two communities to seek new air carriers.
The announcement also encourages passengers from southern Illinois to seek a new way to get to Chicago.
Early last month, SkyWest, a regional airline that books flights through United Express at both airports, told the US Department of Transportation it would withdraw from the airports after 90 days. The airline blamed pilot shortages and rising fuel costs for his departure.
Because both airports are part of the Essential Air Service program, a federal agent that gives small communities air access, the federal government will require SkyWest to continue serving the airports, possibly beyond the 90 days — and during the remainder of their contracts or until another supplier is in place. The DOT also said it will help both communities find new passenger service carriers.
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Both airports offer flights to Chicago.
According to 2019 Federal Aviation Administration data, SkyWest served 11,838 passengers from Cape Girardeau and 17,982 from Paducah.
“While we knew there was definitely a shortage of pilots and the industry was in turmoil due to the pandemic, I admit that this particular announcement came as a surprise. It was a punch in the belly,” Paducah Mayor George Bray said. “But we have to roll with the punches.”
Bray was chairman of the Barley Regional Airport Authority before his election as mayor. He said efforts were already underway to secure new passenger service for the airport.
“I don’t think we know exactly what’s going to happen yet because the industry is reacting to SkyWest’s announcement, but there are airlines that are adapting and preparing to ramp up service to communities,” Bray explained. “We are in discussions with various airlines that we believe would provide a credible service to the community, but I think we are a few months away from any decision.
The potential lack of air service caused some southern Illinois residents to use United-branded SkyWest service to fly to Chicago.
“There’s not much we can do, but logistically it could be a problem for the whole region,” said Trish Steckenrider, executive director of the Greater Metropolis Convention and Tourism Board. “It’s usually so easy to use the airport to get to Chicago. You can leave in the morning and literally be back in the evening. It will certainly have an impact on the people of the region.
She expressed concerns specifically about Superman’s annual celebration.
“We have people who come from all over the country and even the world. So that might make the logistical part of the upcoming celebration in June more difficult,” she said.
Illinois State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, said he recognizes the vital role air service plays for the region.
“Connecting people to destinations through air service plays a critical role for tourism in all regions of the country, including southern Illinois,” he said. “With many exciting tourism things coming to our area, like the opening of Walker’s Bluff Resort and more, I will continue to advocate for essential transportation services.”
As essential air service communities, the federal government is obligated to ensure Paducah and Cape Girardeau have passenger flights. However, Doug Kimmel, airport manager at Southern Illinois Veterans Airport in Marion – who is unaffected by SkyWest’s announcement – said it could be difficult for airports to find a replacement at SkyWest.
“The current problem is who else has the ability to conquer new markets? he wondered.
He said he wasn’t sure if Cape Air, which provides passenger air service from Marion to St. Louis and Nashville, would be interested in serving the other two airports. SkyWest was one of the carriers Southern Illinois Veterans Airport considered several years ago to provide its service, but ultimately the contract was awarded to Cape Air.
Cape Air representatives declined to be interviewed.
Kimmel said SkyWest could potentially be held to its contract to serve Cape Girardeau and Paducah, but that service could mean fewer flights and less reliable air service, perhaps just a few flights a week.
Cape Girardeau Regional Airport manager Katrina Amos played down the concerns.
“There is always a chance that we will be without passenger service, but I think we are in a very good position, so it’s not a problem. I don’t think we will be without service at any time. We are working very aggressively to get another service,” she said.
Amos said the airport’s goal is to avoid a service disruption.
“We want to make sure there’s a very minimal impact on the community,” she said.
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