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8/3/2012 7:34:00 AM
Three airlines seek Rhinelander contract
SkyWest proposal might be best for airport, officials say

Three airlines are vying to provide essential air service to the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport.

The company that receives the airport contract will use subsidies from the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide passenger service in Rhinelander.

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.

The new carrier will replace of Frontier Airlines, which announced earlier this year that changes in the air-travel industry make it difficult to be profitable in Rhinelander.

However, because Frontier is providing “essential” air service under a federal contract, it must continue service until a new airline takes over.

According to Airport Manager Joe Brauer and Airport Commission President Bob Heck, SkyWest is proposing to provide service from both Rhinelander and Iron Mountain-Kingsford, Mich., to Minneapolis-St. Paul. The offer to serve both airports is a package deal, they said.


Details of proposals

“SkyWest, operating as Delta Connection, would use 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet 200s, and would offer our airport a minimum of two flights per day,” Brauer said. “The exciting thing about it is that they offer jet service and flights for 100 passengers per day.”

SkyWest’s combined annual subsidy for the two airports would be about $4 million.

According to Brauer and Heck, Great Lakes is proposing three flights a 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.

The airline, at its own discretion, could upgrade to Embraer EMB-120 30-seat passenger planes. Great Lakes said it also is willing to consider service to O’Hare Airport in Chicago, instead of Minneapolis, if gate space is available there.

The proposed annual subsidy for Great Lakes would be approximately $1.86 million.

In November 2011, Great Lakes was awarded the essential air service contract for Rhinelander, but had difficulty settling on a date for replacing Frontier.

Because of that, Heck asked Department of Transportation officials to seek new bids for Rhinelander. The feds agreed, as did Great Lakes. For that reason, both Heck and Brauer could not explain why Great Lakes submitted a new bid.

Sovereign Air would fly 30-seat Dornier 328 jets to a proposed Chicago hub. The airline would offer five round-trip flights daily with stops in Rhinelander. The proposed annual subsidy would be $1.96 million.

“We of course appreciate Sovereign Air’s interest in serving Rhinelander, but right now, they are not offering flights anywhere and don’t even have FAA certification,” Brauer said.

“It could take months, if they were approved, to start up service here, and we want service here to replace Frontier as quickly as possible,” Heck said.


What’s next?

Both Heck and Brauer seemed to favor awarding the contract to SkyWest.

“Operating under Delta Connection (with SkyWest), passengers here would once again be able to use and gain Delta frequent-flyer miles,” Heck said.

Added Brauer, “And we would have jet service daily for 100 passengers.”

Both said the SkyWest two-year deal would allow the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport to grow once again.

The SkyWest proposal would provide additional flights to Rhinelander if ridership justifies an expansion.

“Or they could switch to using 70-seat planes that would allow us to serve 140 passengers a day,” Heck said, adding the airport once “averaged 200 passengers a day.”

Heck and Brauer said they hope to rebuild ridership to that level and 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.”


Feds analyze proposals

Heck and Brauer said federal transportation officials will now examine the three proposals and decide who receives the air-service contract. That decision could take several more weeks, with public comment accepted until Aug. 17.

“We’ve shown before we have the numbers to support regular jet service, and once everything is set, our numbers will go up again,” Heck said.

Comments on the proposals can be sent by fax to (202) 366-7638 or by email to dennis.devany@dot.gov or brian.swanson@dot.gov.

Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at jvandelaarschot@lakelandtimes.com.

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