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Advantage: Denver Air

Oct 1, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

It was a bit of a stretch last year for local governments in Fremont County to agree to pay Denver Air Connection hundreds of thousands of dollars as a revenue guarantee in order for the Sheridan-based carrier charter carrier to send its slick, 30-passenger jet to Riverton Regional Airport and start carrying passengers to Denver.

But they gritted their teeth and did the thing that Denver Air Connection said it had to have.

Now, coming up on a year and a half later, Denver Air is about to stand alone serving Fremont County's only commercial airport. Great Lakes Airlines, which has endured a very difficult three years or so since federal regulations changed the requirements on pilot experience, announced a couple days ago that it was giving up service here.

An obvious question, then, is whether Denver, no longer facing the competition from Great Lakes, still will want the full revenue guarantee, and whether it will need it.

It's true that it might no longer need the money for basic operations, but there might be other, very useful ways for it to put the funding to use if it's available.

Remember, the amount of money provided by Riverton, Lander, and Fremont County governments to Denver Air this year is less than it was last year. Not everybody matched last year's funding, and the airline has been proceeding through its second year of operations without the minimum funding it claims to require. Under one scenario, DAC might fly only through this coming February, then quit if revenue generated through actual ticket sales isn't covering costs in light of the shortfall in the guaranteed funding.

Denver Air's performance has been good, and its numbers in recent months have been rising. And now it's perfectly logical to presume that its passenger loads will be even better now that Great Lakes is going away in 30 days. (Note: Don't expect Great Lakes to offer much of a schedule in October. Performance has been erratic in recent weeks, and there won't be much incentive to perform well anymore.)

Let's hope great Denver Air can fill all 30 seats on its Dornier 328 jet on every flight. Newspaper readers who used the airline in the past week on both the morning departure and the evening arrival said every seat was occupied. But that's not the only challenge.

The airline faces additional hurdles as it tries to establish itself on more or less the same footing that Great Lakes enjoyed its prime. Namely, an earlier departure time from Riverton Regional would be highly advantageous for travelers trying to make connections at Denver International Airport, particularly eastbound. Second, a baggage-handling agreement that would permit passengers who have a final destination other than Denver would raise the convenience level considerably. As it stands now, if you have a checked bag from Riverton, you must take that bag clear to the main airport terminal and come back through security again in Denver in order for it to be put on another flight on another airline. That is no fun, and time-consuming to boot. It is another hindrance to making a quick connection in Denver.

Denver Air also stands to benefit greatly if they can arrive at a so-called "code sharing" agreement with another airline. Great Lakes had that as well. It means that if you are buying a ticket on a trip departing from Riverside Regional, you could book your entire flight to your final destination on another airline, as if they were all the same ticket. This raises convenience and usually lowest price for trip.

Finally, travelers unfamiliar with the local Denver Air Connection story won't find the fledgling carrier on the major travel websites such as Expedia, Travelocity, Kayak and others. It turns out that getting your carrier listed on those websites is expensive. Some airlines, Southwest most notably, have decided they are big and powerful enough that they don't need it, but for a carrier with one plane and three destinations, the name recognition and ease of access made available through these Internet connections highly desirable. So far, Denver Air does not feel comfortable spending the money to get itself listed.

So, could the local-government funding help with any of those issues? Even if it is determined that Denver Air, freed from the Great Lakes competition, now can fill enough seats to cover the expenses that have been met in part by the local subsidy, the money still might be used to help cover the cost of getting listed on Expedia, for example.

From time to time, local travelers with relatively long memories lament the good old days of Frontier Airlines 737 jet service from Fremont County, or the days with $16 fares to Casper. What they rarely mention during reminiscences is that those conditions came in an era of federally subsidized air travel. That ended more than 30 years ago. Most people enjoy the Denver Air experience on the bigger, faster, more comfortable and better-staffed flight airplane, but that it is possible through, again, subsidy. The only difference is local governments are subsidizing it instead of the feds.

Congratulations to Denver Air for its performance so far. Good luck to Denver Air now that the local air market will be expanding for it in the months to come. And let's remember that we made a commitment at the local level to secure and sustain reliable air service. Even with Denver Air's improving prospects, we may need to continue that commitment a while longer.

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2017-10-18