DECATUR — Growing the number of passengers who fly out of Decatur Airport marks a major consideration for Decatur Park District officials as they consider proposals from three airlines who want to provide subsidized commercial air service to the city.
On Monday, representatives of Air Choice One, SkyWest Airlines and Cape Air met with park board members during a special meeting. Airport Director Tim Wright said the district's primary focus for Decatur is still to reach the goal of 10,000 enplanements in a year, meaning 10,000 passengers boarding a flight that originates from Decatur.
As a part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, reaching 10,000 enplanements in a year would allow the airport to receive more federal money for infrastructure improvements. Created in 1978, the EAS program subsidizes airline flights to 111 rural communities that would otherwise have no scheduled service. Qualifying communities are at least 210 miles from the nearest hub airport, according to the Department of Transportation.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump proposed to reduce federal funding for the air service as a way to save the government about $175 million a year. As of October, no such cuts have been made to the service.
To help Decatur reach enplanement goal, Air Choice One CEO Shane Storz proposed that the airline would continue to offer three round-trip flights a day to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and four round-trip flights a day to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Storz also proposed adding one flight a day from Decatur to Carbondale as a way to help increase passenger traffic.
"This will be our next step to success," he said.
Missouri-based Air Choice One has been Decatur's commercial air carrier since late 2009. Storz said the airline is on track to have an estimated 8,250 passengers take flights out of Decatur Airport by the end of 2017.
Both SkyWest and Cape Air are regional feeder carriers for larger major companies, such as United, Delta and American Airlines. While Cape Air would provide the same amount of flights to Chicago and St. Louis as Air Choice One, SkyWest would only offer two daily flights from Decatur to Chicago.
Despite proposing a less frequent amount of flights from the airport, Greg Atkins said SkyWest's larger jet sizes and connections with the Chicago-based United's global flight network could appeal to local passengers.
"We see huge potential for a big increase in ridership," said Atkins, managing director of market development for SkyWest. "(Decatur's) population supports it, and we think jet service on a brand like United would be beneficial."
If its proposal is accepted, Cape Air CEO Dan Wolf said the company would look into opening a ticket office in Decatur. This is a common practice of Cape Air's, Wolf said, and it allows the company to have a stronger presence in the communities to which it provides service.
Wolf said Cape Air is also willing to be flexible with its flight schedules, based on the amount of input it receives from passengers.
"To summarize the plan, it's about independence, connectivity and frequency," he said.
Air Choice One and Cape Air are seeking four-year contracts with the U.S. Department of Transportation offer Essential Air Service to Decatur, while SkyWest is only asking for a two-year contract. The board is expected to make a recommendation to the Department of Transportation on Wednesday.