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Airport looking for added air service

Jan 27, 2012 - By Joshua Scheer, Staff Writer

The board overseeing Riverton Regional Airport has formed a subcommittee to begin exploring the possibility of expanded air service with the aid of area businesses.

Despite recent financial troubles experienced by current carrier Great Lakes Aviation, airport manager Bill Urbigkit said the creation of the subcommittee is "no move to replace Great Lakes."

"None of this is due to fears Great Lakes might be leaving," he said.

At the board's Jan. 20 meeting, board members Cindy Olson, Dean Peranteaux and Rich Gard, who is also a Riverton city councilman, were appointed to look into the matter.

The driving force behind the creation of the group, Urbigkit said, is because of comments from the public regarding the desire for reduced costs and flights to Salt Lake City.

"We need better service," Olson said. "We've been working with Great Lakes for that, and it's not happening."

She clarified that the formation of the committee had nothing to do with attempting to drive the airline from Riverton, but rather to provide better service for customers.

Also, there is a large percentage of Fremont County air travelers who drive other places to board a plane, rather than starting in Riverton.

"(In 2010,) 33,000 people from Fremont County went somewhere on an airplane," Urbigkit said.

Fewer than half, 14,542, boarded planes at Riverton Regional. Denver, Salt Lake City and Casper were the top three destinations where the leakage occurred the most, Urbigkit said.

He received the numbers in a report from Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics division, which drew statistics from plane tickets bought using Fremont County ZIP codes.

"That leakage is something we can control by having better service ... at least hope to control," he said.

Urbigkit explained that there had been talk about using WyDOT Aeronautics's Enhanced Air Service program, which is different than the federal Essential Air Service program, to bring in an airline like SkyWest Airlines.

Through the Enhanced Air Service program, the state will fund 80 percent of the cost to bring a carrier to an airport. The remaining 20 percent is up to the airport to come up with.

Urbigkit used SkyWest's service to Gillette as an example. The cost of the service is approximately $1.5 million per year. Under the enhanced program, that leaves about $300,000 for the airport to fund.

"We're embarrassingly destitute," he said, noting that the City of Riverton doesn't have an extra $300,000 in spare change.

He clarified that he was not considering the city's reserves as a possible funding mechanism.

Part of what the subcommittee will be exploring is the support for expanded service among businesses.

Urbigkit said businesses will essentially be asked, "Are you willing to make a financial commitment for enhanced air service?"

Organizations that use the airport often will be approached in the coming weeks to see if there is "a taste" for such a financial partnership with the airport.

Among those Urbigkit listed as who will be approached were Encana Corporation, ConocoPhillips, National Outdoor Leadership School and Strathmore Minerals Corp.

"Starting out, this will just be one on one," Urbigkit said.

The end goal would be "a coalition of businesses" that could start negotiations with airlines to bring in more service.

Urbigkit would also like to see the state's airports work more in unison to better serve everyone.

"It's kind of fractured," he said of all of the individual business deals.

In the near future, there is the possibility of the airport hosting public hearings to get input on potential expanded service.

"I'm looking forward to the committee working on this," he said.

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