Cody-Chicago air service brings big bill

POWELL — After a Chicago-Cody flight proved less popular than expected over the summer, Yellowstone Regional Airport boosters and the state government must cut a roughly $150,000 check to United Airlines, as they had guaranteed the airline would make a certain amount of money from the flight. 

It will effectively empty the coffers of the CodyYellowstone Air Improvement Resources (CYAIR), which is now seeking additional funding. 

As in the past, United only agreed to offer the Chicago-Cody flight because it had received a so-called minimum revenue guarantee. 

In this case, CYAIR and the Wyoming Aeronautics Commission committed to paying United up to $157,776 if the flights didn’t bring in as much revenue as hoped. 

Offered between July and September, the weekly connection to Chicago was projected to result in approximately 800 more enplanements at YRA and approximately $300,000 worth of additional visitor spending in the Cody area. 

CYAIR Administrator Bucky Hall told aeronautics officials that the service “has performed well in the past”; one of the first years that a Chicago-Cody connection was offered, he said it drew enough passengers that CYAIR and the state didn’t have to pay United a dime. 

But things didn’t go as well in 2021, as the entities wound up owing United roughly $150,000, Hall told Park County commissioners last week. 

“I wouldn’t say they [United] talked us into taking September, because Labor Day weekend, the flight’s always full,” Hall said. “But the last two weeks [of September], it basically was flying empty for all intents and purposes. 

“So I’m having to pay them,” he said, “and it’s wiping me out, plus some.” 

While state aeronautics is picking up 40% of the minimum revenue guarantee, the remaining 60% — or around $90,000 — is CYAIR’s responsibility. CYAIR has only raised about $80,000 over the past two years and Hall said it has just enough money in the bank to pay this bill. He’s now back on the fundraising trail. 

“I’m trying to prime the pump for this coming year,” Hall told commissioners. 

At its Dec. 21 meeting, the commission — which hadn’t provided any funding to CYAIR during the last budget year or the current one — agreed to contribute $26,000; it’s the same amount the county provided in fiscal year 2019-20. 

While not necessarily wanting to approve the funding, “we definitely need to support you,” Commissioner Joe Tilden told Hall. “There’s no question about that.” 

Commissioner Lloyd Thiel, however, voted against the funding. 

“I appreciate what they [CYAIR] do, it’s just I’m having trouble subsidizing airlines,” Thiel said. 

“That’s how it works,” Hall responded, saying small, non-hub airports need to provide revenue guarantees to entice commercial airlines. 

“Doesn’t make it right,” Thiel countered. 

He added “We have a lot of people in the counties, they can give two [expletives] about it. … I’m just saying, we’re spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize airlines that don’t want to step up and provide the service.” 

Hall later offered to the rancher that, “the government subsidizes farmers. What’s the difference?” 

“Well,” responded Thiel, “they didn’t get my P.O. box, evidently.” 

As Hall seeks to replenish CYAIR’s funds, Commissioner Dossie Overfield asked if he’d approached other Big Horn Basin counties, since they’re also served by YRA. Hall said he planned to do so, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he said he hadn’t done much fundraising since April. 

“But I’ve finally been slapped upside the head,” he said.

Hall specifically mentioned the thought of seeking funding from the City of Powell. 

Commissioner Scott Mangold noted that the Cody airport received “all those millions of dollars” through the CARES Act — around $11.7 million — and asked whether some of that money could be used to promote commercial air service. 

However, Hall, who also sits on the airport’s joint powers board, said YRA is prohibited from using the dollars on minimum revenue guarantees and that the funding generally must come from local groups. 

No matter how much cash CYAIR is able to raise, it apparently won’t be able to save Cody’s seasonal service to Salt Lake City. Delta Air Lines informed airport officials earlier this month that they and SkyWest Airlines will not offer the traditional Cody-Salt Lake connection next summer — and they appear to be holding fast to that decision. 

In a conversation with SkyWest, which has operated the flight for Delta, Hall said he raised the possibility of a minimum revenue guarantee. However, the SkyWest representative effectively said “no amount of money’s going to get you an airplane from us this summer,” Hall recounted to commissioners. 

But he’s more optimistic about Salt Lake City service returning after a one-year hiatus. 

“I feel from those conversations we’ve had, they will be back — maybe as early as next summer [2023],” said Hall. “But they’re not coming back this year [2022].” 

United, meanwhile, plans to add more flights to Cody next spring and summer, when the Jackson airport is temporarily closed for construction work. 

Although the Chicago connection fared relatively poorly, overall enplanements at YRA are up more than 97% from last year. 

Through November, the Cody airport had logged 34,880 enplanements — up from 17,674 boardings at the same point in 2020, but still down nearly 11% from the 38,666 enplanements logged at this point in 2019.