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PenAir to ease demand for flights to Denver
July 01, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Local travelers have had difficulty in the past with flight connections from Scottsbluff to Denver and back, making it necessary for them to drive to Colorado to make their flights.
This fall, the situation should improve greatly.

Western Nebraska Regional Airport, northeast of Scottsbluff, is preparing for the arrival of PenAir, which will start flying the Scottsbluff-to-Denver route in November.

Anchorage, Alaska based PenAir began flying in Alaska in 1955. By 2012, they expanded to include routes in New England, then added flights to the Pacific Northwest in 2015. This is their first major expansion into the Midwest.

The first flight from Scottsbluff to Denver International Airport is scheduled for Nov. 2 at 7:55 a.m. An 11:10 a.m. departure follows. The last flight back arrives at 6:30 p.m. Two flights daily are planned Monday through Friday with one flight a day on Saturday and Sunday. The airline will fly 30-passenger Saab 340 aircraft. PenAir officials also indicated they’d consider adding a third daily flight if the current two end up being consistently filled.

Airport Director Darwin Skelton said the current air carrier, Great Lakes Airways, was struggling to provide reliable service, often cancelling flights and leaving passengers stranded in Denver.

Part of the problem dates back to 2013, when the Federal Aviation Administration increased the number of flight hours required to fly larger aircraft from approximately 200 to 1,500. That caused a shortage of pilots for smaller airlines as experienced pilots were hired by the big national carriers. Skelton said the revised regulations resulted in Great Lakes’ roster of pilots to drop from just over 300 to around 60 at one point.

With Great Lakes’ contract with the airport set to expire in October 2016, the airport board advertised for proposals in 2015. They received bids from five different airlines.

“A couple of the airlines would probably have been a good choice, but PenAir offered the best solution for what we had going,” Skelton said. “The proposals also had to go the Department of Transportation.”

PenAir’s proposal, in order to work for them, needed to include stops in North Platte and Kearney. Both those cities subsequently approved them as an air carrier. Skelton said PenAir is also working on routes into Liberal and Dodge City, Kansas. While those routes have been approved, details still need to be finalized.

The airline was thoroughly vetted during the selection process. All of the destinations served by PenAir have been complimentary of the airline for dependable, on-time service. They also plan to establish a maintenance hub in Kearney to house a second plane in case mechanical problems occur.

Don Overman, Board Chairman of the Scots Bluff County Airport Authority, said PenAir is a first-class operation, so getting their service here is a big win for all the airport’s customers.

“They have a reputation for 95 percent on-time completion rate,” Overman said. “In their proposal, the regular ticket price for a flight to Denver will be $79. They’re as enthusiastic to come here as we are to have them.”

Earlier this year, two PenAir vice presidents came to the area to meet with airport officials and the board. Overman said the board has several offers from different airlines. While PenAir made the best proposal, it was contingent upon North Platte, Kearney and the two Kansas destinations also accepting the proposal.

“PenAir also gets involved in each community it serves,” Overman said. “From service clubs to advertising to fundraising events, they’re very good corporate citizens.”

The airline will have nine employees based at the airport. They also plan to bring in one of their airplanes for display at the Old West Balloon Fest on Sunday, September 4, at the airport from 3-9 p.m. The event will include family activities and a balloon glow for the pilots.
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