Passenger count spikes with larger aircraft

Passengers embark in the Joplin Regional Airport in 2017.

Passengers at the Joplin Regional Airport will fly United Express by SkyWest Airlines starting June 1, the city announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded the bid for Joplin’s subsidized airline service to SkyWest, which will release financially troubled American Airlines from providing service when the SkyWest service begins.

United Express will offer daily flights to Chicago International Airport and Denver International Airport, replacing the current twice daily flights to and from Dallas. Flight schedules are being worked out among the airline and airport staff, the city said in a statement. According to the SkyWest bid, flights to a Houston hub might be offered in the future.

Under the terms of the bid, the service will run for three years with subsidies of $1,222,934, $795,943 and $498,452 paid to SkyWest over the next three years, respectively.

American Airlines sought a subsidy of nearly $1.53 million a year to provide 12 round-trip flights a week to Dallas under its American Eagle brand. That is similar to the existing service.

“We are very pleased with the DOT’s decision,” said Steve Stockam, manager of the Joplin Regional Airport, in a city statement.

“As many may recall, we were flying to Chicago for nine months in 2019, and it was a strong market for us. Adding the Denver hub to our service provides more connections to western destinations and will provide some new opportunities for area residents. Both hubs offer the business and leisure traveler many options. It’s an exciting time for us, both the Joplin Regional Airport and our passengers who now have new possibilities.”

The Joplin City Council endorsed the SkyWest bid on Stockam’s recommendation.

Joplin had won American service to a second hub, Chicago, in 2019, but the airline stopped those flights when COVID-19 hit last March, nearly stalling all airline travel. The airline posted an $8.9 billion loss on its 2020 operations, costing investors more than $18 per share. The brand’s stock now hovers just above $21 per share.

The city of Joplin and members of the Joplin Area of Commerce paid a $600,000 guarantee to start service to the Chicago hub with American. All of that money was paid out to the airline before COVID-19 struck and ended the Chicago service.

“This is a net win,” said Toby Teeter, president of the chamber, of the SkyWest service. “Returning to dual hub status is important for our business community. Direct flights to both Denver and Chicago gives us better connections to the East Coast, the West Coast and even to Europe. Dozens of large-scale employers raised funds to bring the Chicago air service to Joplin two years ago. It will be nice to have that direct connection return to the Joplin Regional Airport. Also, the new United/Skywest contract better positions Joplin for a third hub once our flight traffic supports the demand for it.”

United Express will fly 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200 aircraft

Stockam said data provided by the airport’s consultant, Volaire Aviation Consulting, done as part of the Essential Air Service bidding process showed that having the Chicago service and the dual hub airports increased Midwest use of the service by more the 400%. International passengers increased by 40%, according to the study.

“This will be a good move and offers two strong hubs for travelers from our region,” Stockam said. “We encourage all travelers to look to Joplin as the first option in their travel needs.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a request for bids in October after American Airlines announced it would pull out of 15 city airports, including Joplin.

The federal agency notified American it could not leave the Joplin market because the airline had originally started service here in 2010 by receiving a subsidy through the Essential Air Service program. After success here, American discontinued its subsidy in 2018.

That subsidy guarantees service to cities that had branded airline flights when the federal government deregulated the airline industry in 1978.

American must continue current service to Joplin with a subsidy of $1,237 per flight until the new service starts.

Stockam told the Globe in November that American is transitioning out of Chicago altogether in favor of having a hub in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“While that would help us some, it is not what we need” to serve those who fly in and out of Joplin, especially international passengers and those who come to Joplin for business reasons, he said then.

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