MUSKEGON, MI – SkyWest, the only commercial airliner to service the Muskegon County Airport, wants to end flights there, but can only do so once a replacement carrier is found.
SkyWest, which receives $3.2 million in annual federal subsidies to service Muskegon, on March 10 filed a notice of intent to withdraw service to 29 communities.
SkyWest provides twice-a-day service, under the United Express brand, between Muskegon and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. It wants to stop Muskegon flights on June 8 due to an ongoing pilot shortage.
The US Department of Transportation on March 11 issued an order requiring SkyWest to continue providing service until new carriers can be found to service the affected communities, which include Houghton.
The order also seeks proposals from air carriers to pick up the service that SkyWest wants to drop. Proposals are due by April 11.
A spokesman for the Utah-based airline said the federal order “is an expected part of the transition process.”
Communities targeted for service termination are the ones most impacted by the “ongoing pilot staffing imbalance,” SkyWest Spokesman Wes Horrocks told MLive.
A statement from SkyWest said its Muskegon employees would be given opportunities to transfer elsewhere in the company. It also said customers who booked flights beyond June 8 will be contacted by SkyWest “to make alternate arrangements.”
Unaffected by SkyWest’s intent to end service are airports in Alpena, Escanaba, Iron Mountain, Pellston and Sault Ste. Married.
The federal order allows SkyWest to drop two roundtrip flights per week — from 14 to 12 — in Muskegon, until a new airline is able to begin service there.
“We’re real disappointed with the announcement, obviously,” Muskegon County Airport Director Joel Burgess told MLive.
The airport will work hard to recruit an airline into Muskegon County, but having 28 other communities also seeking new carriers will make that effort more challenging, Burgess said.
“I think we have an attractive market,” Burgess said. “The community really likes the air service here. I don’t think there will be any lack of support for the service here. It’s just a question of whether there’s capacity to soak up the service for all 29 of the airports.”
SkyWest flew 36,126 passengers in and out of Muskegon in the year ending Sept. 30, 2019, according to federal records. That number dropped during the COVID pandemic to 17,313 in 2020 and 20,385 in 2021, records show.
All 29 impacted communities benefit from federal Essential Air Services (EAS) subsidies given to SkyWest to provide airline service to small airports. SkyWest’s three-year EAS contract to provide service from Muskegon to O’Hare on 50-seat planes expires at the end of January 2023.
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During the process to find a new carrier, Muskegon can request fewer weekly flights if seasonal fluctuations justify it, according to the order.
The US Department of Transportation intends to sign new multi-year EAS contracts with airlines willing to serve communities SkyWest is leaving, Burgess said. That means it’s possible Muskegon’s passenger service could be quite different, including smaller planes, more frequent flights and even different destination airports, he said.
In addition to the EAS passenger service, charter passenger flights fly out of Muskegon County as part of special vacation packages including casino trips. Private aircraft, cargo planes and the US Coast Guard also use the Muskegon County Airport.
Last year, Muskegon County entered a five-year contract with F3 Airport, a private company for which Burgess works, to manage airport operations following Federal Aviation Administration concerns about employee training and inspections reporting.
The county is paying $820,970 to F3 this year, which covers employee salaries and a $72,000 management fee. F3 also can receive an additional $32,500 incentive fee.
The contract can be terminated for any reason after this year.
Officials had cited a desire to increase passenger traffic and cargo flights as additional reasons for entering the contract with F3.
The airport has saddled the county with operating deficits for the past 12 years, and this year’s budget projects a $593,414 deficit. Last year’s deficit was reduced with the help of COVID-19 relief funding to $34,353.
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