SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The future is looking a little brighter in air travel after a rough decade for some communities in KELOLAND.

The 2010s were plagued with small airport contract problems, rising costs, pilot shortages and more consolidation of the airline industry.

Looking ahead to the 2020s, South Dakotans looking to take to the sky can expect to find some unique trends ahead like more legroom on some flights (that’s not the national trend), a flight that never leaves the ground and more destinations.

The 2010s in air travel

Let’s first begin with the past 10 years. The decade saw growth in people flying in and out of South Dakota’s airports. The largest jump was seen at Sioux Falls Regional Aiport where there was more than a 60 percent increase in passengers.

It wasn’t all good news for airports. Huron Regional Airport lost its federal subsidies to keep scheduled commercial air service. Meanwhile, Watertown and Pierre struggled to maintain a reliable airline.

There are two types of airports in South Dakota: the regional airports and Essential Air Service airports.

Sioux Falls and Rapid City are the regional airports.

Aberdeen, Watertown and Pierre are regional airports with “Essential Air Service.”

EAS is a federal government program where the U.S. Department of Transportation pays airlines to maintain service at 115 rural airports in the lower 48 states.

The federal government awarded contracts for more than $64 million in South Dakota to keep planes flying over the last decade.

Huron Regional Airport was part of that chunk. By 2016, $2.6 million per year was being paid to Great Lakes Airlines to provide two flights a day with 9-19 seats per plane.

With rising costs for the Huron contract, a 2011 law brought the demise to Huron’s commercial air service. The law allowed the government to pay up to $1,000 per passenger, per flight. Huron exceeded that and service ended in 2016.

That same year Pierre became eligible for EAS funding and joined Watertown with Great Lakes Airlines providing flights to Denver. However, problems with Great Lakes, which turned into Great Lakes Jet Express, then Aerodynamics and finally California Pacific caused a series of problems for the two airports with unreliable service.

In early 2019, California Pacific shut down service in South Dakota abruptly, leaving some passengers stranded. A few months later SkyWest, operating as United Express, earned the contract to provide more reliable service for the airports. United now flies routes from Pierre and Watertown to Denver and Watertown to Chicago.

The Skywest contract goes until April 2021.

Meanwhile, Aberdeen has consistently been with SkyWest, operating as Delta Connection. That contract expires in February.

So far no airport is near that $1,000 cap. Watertown has a stricter, $200 per passenger cap, but has stayed below that, according to DOT reports.

The EAS remains a controversial program. President Donald Trump proposed to cut it during one of his early budget proposals. That plan was scrapped and it is set to continue until at least 2023.

At the state’s larger airports the destinations are expanding. In 2019, Allegiant added seasonal flights from Sioux Falls to Punta Gorda, Florida.

This year, Rapid City Regional Airport announced seasonal nonstop service to Los Angeles and San Francisco in summer 2019 and daily year-round service to Phoenix, Arizona.

EAS has contributed to lower costs in Watertown and Pierre, according to early numbers for 2019.

For the past decade, most ticket costs in South Dakota have been above the national average, but they have fallen, according to the Bureau of Transporation Statistics data.

When adjusted for inflation, the average Rapid City fare fell $10.10 over the last decade (from 2010 to the first half of 2019). It was a much bigger drop in Sioux Falls, with fares plummeting $80.72.

Despite that drop, Sioux Falls is still above the national average. KELOLAND News compared Sioux Falls against the cost of tickets for airports with a similar number of passengers. Sioux Falls is on the lower side for cost per ticket.

What’s ahead in the 2020s

The national trends expected over the next several years include cramming more people in already cramped planes.

Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration is, for the first time looking, at how small the seat sizes can be. They are expected to issue a report next summer.

First-class in Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls, however, is going against that trend and getting more legroom and even a bar on board. United Airlines announced the new CRJ-500 plane is now flying from Sioux Falls to Chicago.

United’s new CRJ-500 (Courtesy: United Airlines)

The airline said the plane has more legroom than any other 50-seat regional jet, which is often the size of commercial planes flying in and out of South Dakota.

United’s new CRJ-500 (Courtesy: United Airlines)
Cabin “bar” on new CRJ-500 (Courtesy: United)

That’s because they took a plane designed for 70-seats and instead put in 50. They also added 10 first-class seats and 20 Economy Plus seats. In addition, the airline is touting a self-service snack and beverage station for first-class passengers and the ability to fit carry-on bags in the cabin, instead of gate checking.

Why make this change when real estate on a plane is so valuable?

United said they’re trying to target business travelers in select markets with amenities not usually found at smaller airports, like Sioux Falls.

“In an era where many airlines are adding seats to their aircraft to crowd more passengers onto the plane, we’re re-configuring more than 100 of our aircraft and doing exactly the opposite – for the benefit of our customers,” said Andrew Nocella, United’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer. 

There’s also another reason. Airlines are expanding into the 70-90 seat jets, according to a Federal Aviation Administration forecast for the next several years.

“We expect the number of 50 seat regional jets to fall to just a handful by 2030, replaced by 70-90 seat aircraft,” the FAA said.

United’s new CRJ-500 (Courtesy: United Airlines)

The problem is, United’s contract with pilots limits the number of 70-90 seat planes, so the airline has chosen this as their path forward.

Sioux Falls is one of 25 cities that its regional partner GoJet will be flying the new plane from either Chicago or Newark.

United confirmed to KELOLAND News that flights began this month.

Delta has launched a similar passenger experience with a much larger 109-seat plane. Those are not yet scheduled in and out of South Dakota.

Delta Air Lines first A220 (Chris Rank/Delta)

$9 tickets to Twin Cities

Another test that could land in Sioux Falls is similar to your normal flying experience: free Wi-Fi, power, snacks and refreshments, a “flight” attendant and the ability to select your seats.

Except for one major difference: it doesn’t ever leave the ground.

Sun Country, an ultra-low-cost airline out of the Twin Cities, launched its Landline Connection bus service to Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport this year. Right now the bus brings passengers from Mankato and Duluth right to the terminal.

A Landline bus partnered with Sun Country (Courtesy: Landline)

They’re booked as part of your Sun Country plane tickets and allow passengers to connect to more than 50 destinations.

Luggage is even taken directly from the bus to get checked for the flight.

Bus interior
Inside the Landline bus (Courtesy: Landline)

David Sunde is the CEO of Landline.

“Landline is here to make regional air travel – which has become prohibitively expensive – more affordable, more comfortable, and more efficient,” Sunde said.

The airline’s CEO told travel news website The Points Guy last month, that Sioux Falls is a potential new stop.

The airline said to KELOLAND News that Sioux Falls is a candidate for the future growth of the service.

“However, we do not have any set plans to launch in Sioux Falls at this time,” the airline said in a statement.

The bus service is also available separate from the airline, allowing people to go anywhere in the Twin Cities or connect on a different airline at MSP. Fares start a $9 from Mankato.

Rising costs

Regional carriers, the main airlines that fly out of South Dakota, have been experiencing pilot shortages over the past decade.

The FAA believes that issue, plus a growing U.S. economy could mean fares will increase over the next few years.

Industry analyst BCD Travel, in its 2020 forecast, estimates fares will increase 1% in the new year in North America.

The rise of ultra-low-cost carriers like Allegiant has helped cap fares in an ever consolidated industry.

“(That) expansion helped to keep a lid on fare increases despite rising energy and labor costs,” the FAA said.

All three major airlines, Delta, American and United, began no-frills basic economy service as well to compete with the Allegiant, Frontier and Sun Country.

Hourly parking rates are slightly increasing in 2020 at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.

Current rates

Short-term parking
First hour: $1
Every hour after: $2
Max: $14 per day

Long-term parking
Every hour: $1
Max: $8 per day

Economy lot
Every hour: $1
Max: $7 per day
Week: $35

New rates

Short-term parking
First 20 minutes: Free
Every hour after: $2
Max: $14 per day

Long-term parking
First 90 minutes: Free (in case flights are canceled)
Every hour: $2
Max: $8 per day

Economy lot
Every hour: $1
Max: $7 per day
Week: $35

The airport expects an additional $140,000 in revenue by making the change, according to board meeting minutes.

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