Kearney Regional Airport

In addition to an improved baggage handling system, 26 parking spaces have been added at Kearney Regional Airport’s terminal since 50-passenger jetliners began flying to Denver. With boardings hitting records, flights to Chicago will begin Dec. 4.

KEARNEY — It has taken years of preparation and millions of dollars in improvements for the city of Kearney to bring 50-seat jetliner commuter flights to Kearney Regional Airport.

In just three months, Kearney will offer air travelers the option of jetliner flights to two major hubs:

- Eastbound: once-daily round-trip flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, commencing Dec. 4; and,

- Westbound: twice-daily round-trip flights to Denver International Airport, launched in September 2018.

“We have all the fixed assets. This will allow us to take advantage of them,” City Manager Michael Morgan told the Hub last week about the addition of service to Chicago, which he believes will complement the current service to Denver.

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Adding the second flight is in response to years of requests from travelers for an eastbound destination. For years, commuter flights were from Kearney to Denver on prop-driven aircraft seating fewer than 20 passengers. Commuter flights actually ceased in 2017 in the midst of a national pilot shortage and the bankruptcy of PenAir Airline.

During the year without air service, Kearney’s elected leaders and officials searched for a new airline. In addition to the airline search, a new $12 million main runway was built with 90 percent funding from the Federal Aviation Administration and the remainder from the city.

The new runway was one of the major improvements leading up to 50-passenger jetliners coming to Kearney. Other improvements included the addition of an airport fire station and 24/7 staffing, the purchase of two fire trucks specially designed for airports, improved taxiways, a new hangar for jets and terminal renovations.

Morgan said most of those improvements and additions set the stage for jet service at Kearney Regional Airport.

Recently new weather equipment and terminal parking were added and baggage handling was improved to handle the larger passenger volume brought by record boardings.

On Tuesday evening, Morgan will review the agreement to begin flights to Chicago and ask the City Council’s authorization to sign the contract.

Under what is called a minimum revenue guarantee, the city of Kearney will pay a maximum of $1,342,000 to SkyWest to service the Chicago route. How much the city pays will depend upon passenger numbers. The more people who fly to Chicago, the less the city will pay SkyWest.

“The best way to look at it is to say we’re buying jet service to Chicago and it will cost $1.3 million, or maybe less,” Morgan told the Hub last week about the one-year agreement with SkyWest. Under its two-year contract with the federal Department of Transportation, SkyWest receives annual subsidies of $3.6 million for its twice daily flights to Denver.

The Denver flights have been successful, setting passenger boarding records every month since SkyWest launched the service in September 2018. Enplanements are expected to reach 18,500 in calendar 2019, eclipsing the prior annual record of 13,042 in 2013.

The city already has set aside the $1.3 million for the Chicago agreement. The money is from Nebraska Public Power District lease payments for using the city’s power lines and electrical distribution system. In fiscal 2020, the city is budgeting $6.45 million from lease payments. The federal Department of Transportation pays an annual subsidy of $3.6 million for United Express to service the twice-daily Kearney to Denver flights.

In a memo to the City Council, Morgan outlined some of the rationale for adding the Chicago flights:

- O’Hare International Airport is a major hub for United Airlines;

- Chicago provides a convenient and desirable eastbound connection for passengers for feeder airlines like United Express;

- Local interests, including business travelers, expressed support for a Chicago route;

- Leakage studies demonstrated a strong case for a successful connection from Kearney; and,

- Approximately 30 percent of current passengers to Denver are ultimately traveling east.

According to the city’s agreement with SkyWest, the daily round-trip flights will be seven days per week on the 50-passenger jetliners SkyWest flies on its Kearney-to-Denver route.

Tuesday’s council meeting is open to the public and begins at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 18 E. 22nd St.