Officials from the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport and local air passengers received good news Tuesday when the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it has selected SkyWest Airlines to provide subsidized essential air service for the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport.
According to Airport Manager Joe Brauer and Airport Commission Chairman Bob Heck, SkyWest, operating as a Delta connection from Rhinelander, will provide two non-stop flights per day, seven days a week to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and will use 50-passenger Canadair Regional Jet 200 aircraft. The agreement is for two years.
“This is really great news because customers in the past at the airport really liked being able to use Delta Airlines frequent flyer miles and they will be able to do so again with SkyWest,” Heck said. “It’s also great news that SkyWest was selected because Delta serves 5,500 other cities around the world and people will have connections to flights to those locations from Rhinelander.”
SkyWest will be replacing Frontier Airlines which notified airport officials last year that it wanted to end service to and from Rhinelander because of economic issues.
Because Frontier was providing essential air service it could not halt service out of the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport until a new carrier was selected and is on the job.
In March, Great Lakes Airlines was selected to replace Frontier Airlines and provide passenger air carrier service to and from the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, but problems cropped up at Great Lakes and new bids were sought to have other carriers provide the service.
The three airlines that submitted proposals were SkyWest Airlines of St. George, Utah; Great Lakes Aviation Ltd., of Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Sovereign Air Inc. of Belcourt, N.D.
Heck and Brauer both said SkyWest’s proposal provided the best possible scenario for the Rhinelander facility and federal officials agreed with them.
According to Brauer and Heck, Great Lakes proposed three flights per day from Rhinelander to Minneapolis-St. Paul using 19-seat Beech 1900D turbo prop planes.
“Under that scenario we would only have seats for 57 passengers per day,” Brauer said.
Sovereign Air proposed flying 30-seat Dornier 328 jets to a Chicago hub. The airline would have offered five round-trips daily with stops in Rhinelander.
“We, of course, appreciate Sovereign Air’s interest in serving Rhinelander, but right now they’re not offering flights anywhere and don’t even have FAA certification,” Brauer said earlier when the bids were announced.
“It could have taken months, if they were approved, to start up service here and we want service here to replace Frontier as quickly as possible,” Heck said.
Both said the SkyWest two-year deal would also allow the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport to grow once again as far as the number of passengers who use the facility on a daily basis.
Bright future for airport
The SkyWest proposal would also offer additional daily flights to Rhinelander if the passenger numbers reached a level indicating the need for such an increase.
“Or they could switch to using 70-seat planes that would allow us to serve 140 passengers a day,” Heck said. “Before the situation with Delta pulling out earlier and Frontier saying they wanted to pull out we were averaging 83 percent capacity and 200 passengers a day.”
Heck and Brauer both said they hope to build the airport’s numbers back to those previous figures and, of course, beyond.
“Our goal is to reach a point where we don’t have to have subsidized service and then we won’t have to go through this again every two to three years,” Brauer said. “But in order for us to do that the community must respond and return to using this airport.”
Brauer said it’s not yet known when SkyWest will begin operations out of Rhinelander.
“We, of course, would like to make this switch as soon as possible, but there’s work that needs to be done to have an efficient turnover of service,” Brauer said.
Brauer said officials involved will work quickly to make the transition and they know it will be a smooth one.
“This is good news for our passengers and good news for the airport and its future,” Brauer said.
Federal officials said they received a number of comments from members of the public about what airline they would prefer to serve Rhinelander.
Among those commenting on the proposals were Gov. Scott Walker, Rhinelander Mayor Dick Johns and the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport Commission.
According to federal officials, “All of the parties strongly endorsed SkyWest. Most comments supporting SkyWest included mention of its proposed aircraft size, the relationship with Delta and the carrier’s recently established presence in the region.”
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.