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Houghton County to SkyWest: A contract is a contract | News, Sports, Jobs


HOUGHTON – The Houghton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Friday to reject SkyWest Airlines’ request to reduce service to Houghton County Memorial Airport, keeping it to two flights a day until SkyWest’s essential air service contract expires at the end of January.

SkyWest gave 90 days notice in March to end flights at Houghton and 30 other airports it serves under the federal Essential Air Service program. SkyWest said it was unable to provide service due to continued pilot shortages.

The Department of Transport blocked the withdrawal, ordering SkyWest to provide 12 flights a week until another carrier signs on.

SkyWest presented Houghton County with a revised proposal for one flight per day. That would continue until SkyWest could be certified as a Part 135 carrier, airport manager Dennis Hext said. They could then fly with an aircraft with 30 seats or less. These pilots also require fewer hours in the air than under the Part 121 certificate that SkyWest currently has.

“Going down to a flight during the summer months, which is our busiest time, would kill us,” said Hext. “But they told me that if we didn’t agree to that they would stay with two flights under their contract as they are supposed to but leave as soon as possible. If we go on a flight, they will work with us.

Hext drew up a counter-proposal, asking SkyWest to stay with two flights until November 1. They could then fly until SkyWest can use the 30-seat plane. By September, he said, a slowdown could reduce air travel, which could ease the shortage of pilots. Several airlines are also looking to enter the EAS space after seeing the withdrawal of SkyWest.

Fuel prices and pilot shortages could also mean higher government subsidies for the next contract, although SkyWest has remained unresponsive at this stage, Hext said.

“I don’t think it would hurt us much by doing this now because if they agreed to this it would cover our summer,” he said. “In September we would go back to bidding, which means that would give us time to work with them to find a better solution, or possibly bring another airline back to offer us.”

It was Hext’s favorite option of the three he presented on the board. Another option was SkyWest’s proposal to immediately switch to one flight per day. A third option was to deny SkyWest’s request and tell them to serve out the remainder of their contract.

Hext said he doubted SkyWest would give up sooner than necessary because the same program that administers EAS is responsible for approving SkyWest’s application to fly the 30-seat planes.

Houghton has been flying with SkyWest since 2010, the year the airport entered the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flights to smaller communities to provide at least a minimal amount of air service.

Of the 31 cities SkyWest has filed termination notices with, Houghton had the fourth-largest passenger traffic in 2021, with about 50,000 passengers.

“Compared to the EAS world, we are very attractive”, said Mike Mooney, who works with Houghton as a consultant. “In terms of United or Delta excitement, we’re not going to do that, especially given the challenges of driver shortages and fuel.”

Only one airline filed a proposal in April: Boutique Airlines, which offered three flights a day with a nine-seater plane. The Houghton County Airport Board rejected the bid because it did not include a twin-engine aircraft, a requirement of the EAS contract.

However, several airlines, including Contour Air, have signaled they are looking to expand into the EAS markets SkyWest is leaving, Hext said.

Board members frowned on moving to one flight a day after November, which would leave the airport underserved during the Christmas travel season.

“I don’t feel like I’m taking a hard stance” said board chairman Tom Tikkanen. “I think that’s a pretty reasonable position. They have a contract. We’re doing our part — the airport is open, it’s maintained, it’s well managed. We are simply asking them to complete their contract. We are not talking about a period of years, we are talking about a period of months.

Commissioner Glenn Anderson was leaning towards the second option before Friday. But he became convinced SkyWest’s need to approve his application could keep it in line. Vice Chairman Roy Britz had expressed concern that there was no enforcement mechanism to keep SkyWest in the contract. But Tikkanen’s point swayed him, he said.

“It’s not us who are tough” he said. “I still believe in contracts… I’m going to stand up and say you touched me on that one.”

Also at Friday’s meeting, council approved $1,128,105 in individual correspondence with nine townships in Houghton County for road projects. The money comes from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds. The deadline for formal acceptance is February and construction must be completed by February 2026.

Projects in Calumet, Laird and Portage townships are ready for this year, county engineer Kevin Harju said.

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