By BECKY KISER
SkyWest Airlines has given a 90-day notice to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) that it will cease its United Express flights at 29 airports across the country, including Hays.
The SkyWest decision also impacts Essential Air Service (EAS) contracts in Salina, Dodge City, and Liberal.
SkyWest has a little more than two years left in its EAS contract with USDOT at Hays Regional Airport. It was the sole bidder in 2021 for the three year contract renewal.
According to a news release from the city of Hays issued late Friday morning, "the decision is not driven by any failure in the USDOT’s Essential Air Service Program (EAS) or the communities.
"Instead, the decision was precipitated by an ongoing national pilot shortage [resulting] in service cuts by all U.S. airlines. SkyWest lacks the pilots needed to meet demand and is reducing flying across its network."
The move is a "hedge against the future" for the airline, according to Toby Dougherty, Hays city manager.
SkyWest "sees scenarios where they just cannot serve the markets they are obligated to serve." Dougherty said. "Knowing that there's a very lengthy process to get out of some EAS markets, they have to file this paperwork right now."
USDOT has issued a hold-in order prohibiting SkyWest from terminating service at the Hays airport until a replacement carrier is selected and begins operations. During the hold-in period, SkyWest is expected to maintain the current daily schedule for regional jet service.
A suspension of scheduled air service is not expected to occur, according to the city news release.
Recently the Hays airport went from 12 SkyWest flights a week to 10 flights a week.
There will be minimal impact on the flight schedule for the next 90 days. The biggest change will actually be the addition of a Chicago flight with a stop in Salina.
"Beginning April 3rd, we will go back to 14 flights a week but we will be tagged with Salina," Dougherty said.
"There will be a morning flight that leaves Hays, stops in Salina, and it goes to Chicago.
"There'll be an afternoon swing-through from Chicago to Salina and Hays and then it goes on to Denver. That will be our Denver outbound flight in the early afternoon. There's a flight early evening that comes back from Denver and spends the night in Hays.
"SkyWest is making these tactical adjustments - and there may need to be more - hoping they can equal the pilots out versus the pilots in, and then get back to normal. They're losing pilots at the top end faster than they can hire on the bottom end."
Hays will work with the USDOT, which issues the EAS contracts, if it does become necessary to select a replacement carrier, Dougherty added. The DOT ultimately decides who will be the EAS carrier, but takes local input into consideration.
SkyWest flies a CRJ 200 50-passenger jet in and out of Hays. The flight schedule is available online at www.united.com.
"We've been told by SkyWest it's their intent to put procedures in place and hire enough pilots to stay ahead of the curve and not have to vacate any EAS markets. But if they do have to vacate EAS markets, they can't do it without this step first.
"Hays is a good market for them. They provide a good product for us. We're hoping they get things straightened out," he said.