The count of passengers boarding flights at the Pierre Regional Airport is way down since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March — and it’s that way all over.
Some airlines have reported a loss of 90% to 95% of revenue and even greater decrease in passengers.
JetBlue has gone from seeing 100,000 passengers a day to about 3,000, its CEO told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
United Express, operated by SkyWest, has seen its passenger numbers in Pierre plummet from 1,297 passengers in January and 1,281 in February, to 871 in March and 59 in April.
The pandemic has frozen most air travel worldwide out of concerns about the coronavirus passing person-to-person in the close quarters of planes, perhaps especially the regional-size 50-passenger Bombardier jets used by United Express/SkyWest.
“It varies,” said new Airport Manager Cameron Howard on Wednesday about how many are boarding flights in Pierre. “Weekends are always higher. That’s when people seem to travel, so there might be five or 10 a day. Yesterday, they had only two.”
In the second half of 2019, an average of 60 passengers daily were boarding one of the two direct flights from Pierre to Denver scheduled each day save one, 13 flights a week, according to the airport’s figures published online.
City Commissioner Jamie Huizenga has regularly reported on passenger numbers at commission meetings and has praised the SkyWest/United Express partnership that he said has provided much better service than Pierre has seen in years.
After California Pacific Air collapsed after a few months of service and abruptly stopped flying to Pierre in January 2019, city officials sought fast-track options for choosing a new airline from federal officials. It worked and by early April 2019 Sky West, operating in partnership with United Airlines’ United Express, began flying to Pierre. It went better than anyone hoped, Huizenga has said regularly the past year.
After passenger numbers under previous airlines totaled 11,791 in 2017 and 10,442 in 2018, they spiked up to 14,797 in only nine months of SkyWest/United Express service in 2019, if the paltry 328 passengers who flew on CPA’s last few flights are counted.
The 2019 figures include an average of 1,792 passengers a month from July 1-Dec. 31, including 2,081 in ringneck-filled October and 1,787 in December — the most for that month in Pierre in four decades Huizenga said earlier this year.
That performance had city leaders figuring 2020 would mean 20,000 or more passenger boardings in Pierre.
Instead, they are concerned now whether they can stay above the key 10,000-enplanements figure, Huizenga said.
Passenger numbers such as 20,000 or 10,000 a year may not be much compared with larger cities’ airports. Even a relatively small city such as Rapid City sees about 600,000 passengers a year flying on a handful of airlines.
But the difference between 10,000 and 20,000 passengers a year for Pierre is a big deal, the difference between $1 million and $200,000 in federal funding for airport upkeep.
Now instead of hoping for maybe 20,000 passengers boarding this year in Pierre, it might end up being a more desperate hope to hit the 10,000 mark, Huizenga said.
At the rate of the year’s first four months — an average of 877 boardings per month — 2020 would end just over the 10,000 mark: 10,524.
Huizenga and Howard each mentioned this week that the major part of the air passenger year in Pierre — pheasant season and the holidays in the latter months — remains and so the numbers could still show a positive rebound.
“It’s frustrating,” Huizenga said, referring to how well things had been going the past year with SkyWest/United Express until the pandemic hit. The parking lot has gone from overflowing to not much more than rental cars on some days, he said.
Only a few months ago, the city commission was concerned about improving and expanding parking at the airport because of the over-crowding.
But about three weeks, ago, SkyWest/United Express cut the number of flights in Pierre from 13 round trips a week to one per day, while adding a stop in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, to each flight, as part of its coping with pandemic-affected travel patterns, Howard said.
One thing the small airport in Pierre has major hubs don’t have as an incentive for an airline to keep flying is the federal Essential Air Service subsidy contract SkyWest received.
The EAS program aims at helping small, isolated communities, such as Pierre, get commercial air passenger service.
SkyWest received a contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation last year of $6.88 million to fly 12 round trips from Watertown-Pierre-Denver each week — roughly half for serving each South Dakota community — from Feb. 13, 2019 through April 30, 2021. Later last year, that was adjusted as Watertown won a separate contract for a flight east to Chicago instead of staying in the partnership with Pierre.
Airlines collect the EAS money as reimbursement per flight, not directly tied to passenger numbers but requiring the flights make the journey to collect the subsidy.
Because of the pandemic’s effect on the airline industry, DOT allowed airlines to cut the number of flights while still getting a larger pro-rated share of the EAS subsidy. In Pierre’s case, it means SkyWest collects about three-fourths of the original subsidy of about $3.7 million per year for providing 12 flights a week to Pierre (SkyWest added a 13th late last year on its own) for completing only seven flights a week.
SkyWest operating United Express has a separate DOT contract under the EAS program for serving Scottsbluff.
Under this regimen, even if only one or two passengers, or none, board in Pierre, SkyWest/United Express will fly the route each day, despite being out the passenger ticket revenue of having the seats full, city officials said.