SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The federal transportation department has determined that air service is essential in Pierre and Watertown, and it wants it enough to help pay for it.

The regional airports in Watertown and Pierre are two of roughly 170 communities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico with EAS sites, according to the US DOT. Federal subsidies help air services operate flights in those EAS sites. The US DOT said EAS sites are needed to make sure areas have air service that connects them to larger, regional hubs.

EAS sites must meet requirements and EAS providers must also meet requirements to receive the subsidy. Providers must also bid on a service contract every two years.

In fiscal year 2018, the US DOT spent $288 million in EAS funding, according to a Dec. 19, 2018, Congressional Research Service report. It spent $193 million in FY2012. Pierre received $4,651,586 in EAS subsidy and Watertown received $2,406,155 as of Sept. 1, 2018 for the EAS required flights to Denver, according to the 2018 report.

The Aberdeen Regional Airport is also an EAS airport. It received $1,389,795 in EAS funding as of Sept. 1, 2018, according to the Congressional report. Its flights were to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

A sky view of the Pierre Regional Airport. Photo from the 2020-2022 South Dakota Airport Directory.

But, SkyWest has continued flights in Watertown and Pierre without a subsidy since it lost its contract bid in April. SkyWest continued to offer flights when it said in its new contract bid that to do so over the next two years it would cost $17 million, according to a US DOT Oct. 7 order. Skywest recently announced it would stop its service in Pierre and Watertown on Jan. 3.

SkyWest was making flights from Pierre and Watertown to Denver even as the new EAS contract holder Denver Air Connection was making similar flights that started on July 1.

“It doesn’t usually happen that way,” said Cameron Howard, the manager of the Pierre Regional Airport. “For whatever reason SkyWest wanted to (continue flights).”

The cities of Pierre and Watertown and SkyWest petitioned the US DOT to rebid the EAS contract. The US DOT rejected that bid in a statement released on Oct. 7.

The petitioners cited DAC’s submitted cost of $9.5 million as flawed and questioned whether DAC would provide reliable air service. Even Gov. Kristi Noem and several other legislators advocated for a re-bid.

Jon Coleman, the director of business development for DAC, said the objections were not very good ones.

“There was quite the ballyhoo when we got the award,” Coleman said.

The US DOT said DAC met the required criteria and cited its demonstrated average on-time departure rating of 98.12% and an average on-time arrival rating of 97.1% for all routes it serviced in 2020 among other factors. The US DOT said after reviewing the petitioners’ claims the “Department finds that none
of those claims are sufficiently supported or adequate to justify the Department overturning its
decision to select DAC to provide EAS at Pierre and Watertown for a two-year term.”

DAC will receive $2,364,855 for Watertown and $2,364,855 for Pierre a year from July 1, through May 7, 2023, according to the US DOT.

A sky view of the Watertown Regional Airport. Photo from the 2020-2022 South Dakota Airport Directory.

Although SkyWest and DAC have been offering flights since July 1 when SkyWest stops, DAC “will absolutely be able to handle it,” Watertown airport manager Todd Syhre said of passenger load.

DAC is required to use a 50-passenger flight and provide 12 total flights per week from Watertown to Denver.

But Coleman said DAC did the contract one better by providing a direct flight from Watertown to Denver instead of stopping in Pierre.

“The city wanted a non-stop flight,” Coleman said.

DAC also has flights from Watertown to Chicago each weekday expect Tuesday and Saturdays.

Coleman said the city of Pierre has been interested in a flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

DAC recently added a city for an airport in New Mexico. It switched one flight from Denver to a Dallas/Fort Worth flight, Coleman said.

It’s possible the flight schedule could change to include a Pierre to Minneapolis/St. Paul flight, Coleman said.

DAC would not need to wait until a new contract round to make that possible change, Coleman said.

Airports in South Dakota. Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, Pierre and Watertown are commercial airports. Aberdeen, Pierre and Watertown are all Essential Air Service airports. Map from the 2020-2022 South Dakota Airport Directory

DAC, which is a child company under the parent company of Key Lime Air, operates in several states.

“Our home is in Colorado,” Coleman said. “So it made sense to consider South Dakota as a place for air service.”

If a plane or other equipment needs service, the needed maintenance including a 24-hour-a-day standby cargo plane are readily available within a short time, Coleman told KELOLAND News.

“Secondly, our bank is in Pierre. We’ve been customers there for 25 years,” Coleman said.

Expanding to EAS service in South Dakota has been a consideration but “we weren’t in a position to do it,” he said.

The company has grown including the size of its aircraft. In the case of Pierre and Watertown, the company was able to make a competitive bid to provide service, Coleman said.

Syhre said air passenger traffic at Watertown continues to grow. He expects that in five to 10 years a second air service carrier may be interested in operating in the city.

As of now, DAC’s $69 one-way flights, three bag allowance and free parking at the airport make Watertown a good choice for flying, Syhre said.

Howard said being on the EAS list is very important for Pierre.

“We are 2 1/2 to 3 hours from the nearest (regional airport),” Howard said.

As in Watertown, air passenger traffic has been growing in Pierre, according to Howard.