We've come a long way

Jan 7, 2018 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Under the advisement of the Fremont Air Service Taskforce, a volunteer group chaired by a Lander resident, the Riverton City Council made a confident, informed decision last week to accept a proposal by Denver Air Connection for 2018 service in Fremont County. That's good.

Even better was the fact that a decision got to be made in the first place. Riverton Regional Airport had two proposals, not just one. This year, SkyWest Airlines also was in the running for the privilege - yes, the privilege - of serving the commercial air service market in Fremont County. SkyWest made a pitch that was evaluated by the FAST panel, which had the unexpected pleasure of comparing two solid propositions.

What a positive change that circumstance was, in and of itself. Just two years ago, at the beginning of 2016, there was a very real possibility that the only proposition local air travelers would have the chance to evaluate concerned whether to use long-term or short-term parking at the Casper airport. Given the market, the history, and the lack of interest among airlines, it was not the least bit unreasonable to presume that Fremont County's commercial air service would come to an end altogether.

To go from that day to this one -- from the probability of no service at all to the luxury of competing offers -- deserves to be regarded and remembered as one of the early 21st century's big success stories in Fremont County.

During the heyday of Great Lakes Airlines, wistful travelers often wished for another airline -- one with a bigger, faster plane, perhaps even a jet aircraft, equipped with more comfortable seats, a higher cruising altitude and a flight attendant. In those days Riverton Regional boarded 10,000 passengers or more routinely, every year, but that outside interest never really happened. Great Lakes had the market.

Today, even though Riverton Regional in 2017 failed to reach the 10,000-passenger mark for the third year in a row, there are two airlines vying for our passengers. That's due largely to Denver Air, which took a chance on Fremont County in the summer of 2016, launching a new and unorthodox type of air service even when Great Lakes was still here.

And Fremont County took a chance of its own, marshaling about $2 million in revenue guarantees for DAC, the money coming from local government sources that didn't have to chip in to the guarantee pool but did so anyway. It was a gamble, but we were all in it together with Denver Air Connection.

On balance, it has worked well. Great Lakes Airlines, tottering for years, finally quit the local market, clearing the decks for a remaining carrier to see what it could do with a clear playing field.

Then SkyWest came calling, too. That clear playing field, small as it is, still presents opportunity for the right air carrier. The passenger numbers, the potential for growth, and the continuing presence of the revenue guarantee all make it so.

The details of the competing proposals have been reported already. More importantly, they have been evaluated, analyzed, sifted, combed, examined and re-examined by the FAST members -- none of whom knew much about commercial air service when they first convened in 2015 They now are bona fide experts in it. They say the Denver Air proposal is the way to go this year, and that ought to be good enough for the rest of us.

It's pleasing to think that Denver Air's willingness to start service here under such iffy circumstances might have played some part in the FAST decision.

This was the carrier that stepped up when no one else would. They've stuck with us, and we're sticking with them.

Air service in a small, half-rural western county isn't a gold mine for the provider, and it's never going to be perfect for the consumer, either. But we still have daily flights to Denver -- on a fast jet, no less -- when other communities in Wyoming and neighboring states, our size and larger, no longer have air service at all.

So here's a new year's resolution for Fremont County. Fly local - and be glad we still have that option. Let's never take it for granted.

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