KEARNEY — Air travelers will have another option on Dec. 4 when once-daily, round-trip flights begin between Kearney and Chicago.
The flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport will be in addition to the two daily round-trip flights already being flown by United Express from Kearney to Denver International Airport.
“To have flights to two major hubs from a rural community is rare,” said Kearney City Manager Michael Morgan. “The community has been talking about eastbound air service to give another option to business and other travelers. We’re getting an opportunity, so I hope people use it.”
It’s been less than one year since commuter air service resumed in Kearney following a 12-month absence. Since September 2018, when Utah-based SkyWest Airlines began operating the United Express flights to Denver, passenger numbers have set records for 11 consecutive months and are on pace to exceed the prior annual record of 13,042 enplanements in 2013.
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As of Thursday, Kearney enplanements stood at 12,425, with about four months to go in the calendar year. Kearney is on pace to reach about 18,500 enplanements in 2019.
Morgan said it’s unknown what United Express fares to Chicago will be, but he said they would be comparable to current fares from Lincoln to Chicago. The standard fare for Kearney to Denver is $163.
Chicago flights will depart Kearney at 2 p.m and arrive at O’Hare at 4:05 p.m. Flights will depart O’Hare at 11:25 a.m. and arrive in Kearney at 1:30 p.m.
SkyWest won’t be federally subsidized for the Chicago flights, as it is for its Denver service, but under what is called a minimum revenue guarantee agreement, the airline and city will share the risk for launching the Chicago service.
Morgan said that under the one-year agreement with SkyWest, the city’s “maximum exposure” would be $1,342,000. Morgan said whether SkyWest is paid any of that $1.3 million would depend upon a variety of factors, including passenger volume, which has been high with the Kearney to Denver flights. He estimated SkyWest would break even on the Chicago trips with load factors of 70 percent to 80 percent.
“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 said the city already has set aside the $1.3 million, which was derived from Nebraska Public Power District lease payments for using the city of Kearney’s power lines and electrical distribution system. In fiscal 2020, the city is budgeting $6.45 million from lease payments, an amount that could increase by 8.2 percent — or $528,000 — with the addition of the Compute North data center at Tech oNE Crossing. The data center, which will begin operations in October, will be a major energy consumer.
SkyWest receives a $3.6 million annual subsidy under its two-year Essential Air Service agreement with the federal Department of Transportation to serve the Kearney to Denver flights.
SkyWest will fly the same 50-passenger jetliners to Chicago as it flies to Denver.