Service and priceAug 4, 2014 By Steven R. Peck
Any air travel solution locally has to address both
No self-respecting person, business or public institution likes to make excuses to explain away problems, but in the case of Fremont County air service in the past year, it is understandable. Passenger numbers at Riverton Regional Airport have suffered drastically -- and it is not our fault.
Now, as Great Lakes Airlines claims substantial improvement in service this summer, the county's new air service task force is in a stronger, better-informed position as it takes on its announced two-pronged task of recruiting a new airline and devising a palatable subsidy plan to stabilize service. Assuming other regional airlines are improving their performance as well, we need no longer operate out of semi-desperation as the recruitment effort goes forward.
Two things are paramount as the task force's work continues: service and price. Even before the new FAA rule on pilot eligibility knocked Great Lakes and other regional carriers over the head, Riverton Regional Airport already lost hundreds of passengers a year because fares to Denver were so high.
Those who could afford to fly locally became accustomed to three flights per day -- early morning, midday and nighttime. Now, however, it sounds as if the redrawn air service picture here will be one with just two flights -- albeit with bigger, faster aircraft.
If that is to be the case, then there simply must be an early morning flight on the schedule. Denver International airport has many connecting flights east and west, but the selection suffers greatly if you aren't at DIA by 9 a.m.
Even with bigger planes, a cut from three flights to two is a reduction in service. If we have to suffer that reduction, then we'll suffer it, but that means air fares must be far more competitive that they have been. Local travelers can't be asked pay more money for worse service.
We've all heard the story about the honeymoon couple whose tickets to from Denver to Paris or Hawaii cost less than the tickets from Riverton Regional Airport to Denver. Gradually, that wears on travelers, whose willingness to fly local is eroded by high prices to the point that what once would have been an inconvenience (driving to Casper or Jackson to fly) or an absurdity (driving to Denver or Salt Lake City) now seems worth it to many travelers. When the recent service disruptions are added to that volatile mixture, fewer people even think about flying from Fremont County anymore.
This is where a step comes into play that has been taken in many other places in the West but seems almost radical here, namely, providing a financial incentive up front for the airline. The task force is debating both definitions and methodology, but it seems that the underlying concept of a subsidy now is being seen for exactly what it is -- a necessity.
Will bigger, faster, more comfy equipment help? Absolutely. And it goes without saying that the newly recruited airline would have to maximize reliability to satisfy a local traveling community that has been northing short of shafted this year.
But if the flights to an airport 350 miles away continue to be priced higher than trips to New York, London or Honolulu, then passenger resentment and resistance will remain high.
At some point, air travelers no longer care whether their air service problem is the fault of the airline, the government, or a bit of both. They only know that it isn't theirs. Any new air service plan has to give not only a new airline a financial incentive to use Riverton Regional Airport, but local air passengers as well.