Airport Hopes to Add Second Daily Flight to Denver by Summer

Airport Hopes to Add Second Daily Flight to Denver by Summer

Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport Facebook photo

SWEETWATER COUNTY — Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport Director Devon Brubaker told the Sweetwater County commissioners Tuesday that the airport hopes to have a second daily flight to Denver return this summer.

The airport is currently operating nine weekly round-trip flights to Denver, with a daily morning departure and night time arrival, and a mid-day arrival and departure on Thursdays and Saturdays. He said the airport has been in conversations about getting the second daily flight to Denver back by this summer.

“I’m hopeful to be back before you with news in the very near future on getting us back to pre-pandemic flight levels, which will be fantastic,” he said.

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Brubaker said that passenger numbers and demand at the airport remain strong, and that the demand is outpacing pre-pandemic demand.

“We just don’t have the capacity to meet that demand, so getting these flights back will be really, really important,” he said.

However, he said that marketing the extra flights to the public will be crucial, as travelers develop habits such as driving to Salt Lake City or Denver to fly to their destinations.

“That’s going to take some time,” he said. “When we see the flight return, be aware that likely the initial billings under the MRG (Minimum Revenue Guarantee) will be much higher billings. But on a positive note, because of the reduced flight capacity we’ve had over the last several years, it’s been a very small percentage of the MRG that we’ve actually paid. We’ve saved money, if you will, that will allow us to ramp up these flights moving forward.”

In not so good news, Brubaker said they will likely have new contract rates with Skywest for fiscal year 2025. There has been a rapid escalation of labor, maintenance, and materials costs that airlines have experienced, and that cost is going to get passed onto the airports. Therefore, he predicts he will be back before the commissioners in July to let them know that there will be an increase in cost for air service.

Uncertainty in Industry, Labor Shortages

Brubaker said while the aviation industry has seen an increase in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic, most airlines and airports have been unable to meet this demand. This is due to a lack of available labor and aircraft, and air traffic congestion. Brubaker’s opinion is increased operating costs are creating long-term uncertainty for the industry.

“We are in a crisis level situation when it comes to labor, both on flight crews and on maintenance,” he said. “To make matters worse, how that’s impacting communities is, 300 airports have lost up to 25% of their air service, and 160 airports, including ours, have lost more than 25% of their air service since the beginning of the pandemic,” Brubaker said. “Those numbers are pretty devastating.”

He said major passenger and cargo airlines hired 12,335 new pilots in 2023. However, the United States only produces between 5,000 to 7,000 pilots annually.

“So the math doesn’t work … that creates an imbalance in supply and demand when it comes to labor force, and that’s why you see pilot union agreements with $10-12 billion of additional compensation over a four-year period, because supply and demand.”

This is why he believes increased operating costs have created long-term uncertainty in the industry that could last for a decade and beyond.

“The higher costs that the industry is now experiencing… something’s going to have to give eventually. When you have a pilot group in one specific airline getting $12 billion of additional compensation over a four-year period on top of what they were already getting, something’s going to have to break,” he said. “Either fares are going to skyrocket nation wide, or these airlines are going to go bankrupt.”

Along with significant demands in air travel, he said that the cause of pilot shortages includes the 1,500 hour rule, which has to do with the minimum hours needed to obtain an airline transport pilot license. Additionally, Brubaker said the cost of training pilots is extreme, while the starting salaries are low.

“I stand before you today as an airport director because I made a career decision after my freshman year of college to stop pursuing airline pilot, which is what I was going to school for… I switched to management because the economics didn’t make sense,” Brubaker said.

There have also been a large number of retirements, as many pilots came out of the military and the mandatory retirement age is 65. Another factor is the addition of new airlines in the industry that have to be staffed along with the existing airlines.

Brubaker said there is some hope in the industry, such as the captain attrition rates at regional carriers like Skywest subsiding, as they are losing less pilots. Furthermore, ultra low cost carriers and cargo airlines are slowing and pausing hiring, and are even encouraging pilots to fly with regional airlines.

In other business, Brubaker was unanimously appointed by the commissioners to fill an unexpired term on the Solid Waste Disposal District No. 1 Board, after Lars Nandrup resigned from the board.