KEARNEY — Air travelers at Kearney Regional Airport have shattered records for passenger boardings.
The city of Kearney reported today that enplanements in 2019 reached 21,269.
That number erases the prior record at the Kearney airport — 13,042 in 2013 — and signals a turnaround in customer confidence and satisfaction with air travel out of Kearney, said Steve Cole, the city’s aviation support coordinator.
“I’m hearing really good things (from travelers),” Cole said today.
Prior carriers, including Great Lakes and PenAir, fought to retain pilots for their smaller 20-passenger aircraft. The current carrier, Utah-based SkyWest, operates United Express flights in 50-passenger jetliners to Denver and Chicago, and places a large emphasis on customer service, Cole said.
He said that recently a SkyWest jetliner that was Chicago-bound had mechanical problems and wasn’t able to leave the terminal. “They immediately dispatched another plane from Chicago, along with a mechanic. Other carriers would have just said the flight has been canceled.”
Cole said the passengers from Kearney were two hours late, but they made it to Chicago. “That kind of thing was unheard of with the other airlines. The big difference is the reliability.”
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According to a press release from Kearney City Hall, the 21,269 enplanements in 2019 represent 63 percent growth compared to the previous record in 2013.
Since the start of United Express service in September 2018, there have been 14 consecutive record-breaking months.
On Dec. 4, the airport added an additional daily, nonstop flight to Chicago. With the Denver route and new Chicago route, December was an all-time monthly record with 2,953 enplanements.
City Manager Michael Morgan said the Chicago flights have exceeded expectations. The city anticipated 35 percent occupancy, but it has been 71 percent.
“That’s awesome,” Morgan said. “United Express and SkyWest have provided outstanding service and reliability, and the people of Kearney are just taking advantage of it.”
Morgan said renewal of the subsidy contract between the federal Department of Transportation and SkyWest will take place in 2020. The current two-year contract pays SkyWest $3,675,276 annually to provide the Kearney to Denver flights. Morgan said that because the Kearney service has been so successful, he expects SkyWest will ask for a three-year contract.
The airline doesn’t receive a federal subsidy for the Chicago flights. Under a one-year agreement, the airline and city of Kearney are sharing the risk of the Chicago service. The city has agreed to pay up to $1.3 million to reimburse SkyWest for expenses it cannot cover with passenger volume.
“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 said.
He estimated SkyWest would break even with load factors of 70 percent to 80 percent.
Passenger traffic at the Kearney airport increased so substantially in 2019 that the city had to improve passenger and baggage handling systems and add parking. Morgan said it looks as if 50 more parking slots will be added this summer.