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Panel recommends SkyWest for new Pierre, Watertown airline

PIERRE, S.D. — Civic leaders in Pierre say SkyWest Airlines is their choice for a new federal contract to provide passenger service to Pierre.

An ad hoc committee of seven met Monday and agreed unanimously to recommend SkyWest to the full city commission, which plans to vote on it at its weekly meeting Tuesday, said city spokeswoman Brooke Bohnenkamp, who was on the ad hoc panel. The commission's vote will go to the U.S. Department of Transportation which has a Feb. 8 deadline to receive such recommendations from Pierre and Watertown.

The city council in Watertown was expected to vote Monday to recommend SkyWest.

Pierre Mayor Steve Harding, Commissioner Jamie Huizenga, City Engineer John Childs and Mike Isaacs, manager of the Pierre Regional Airport, were the city staff members with Bohnenkamp. They were joined by Clint Pietz, head of Mustang Aviation and in charge of the FBO, the fixed-base operation integral to any airport; and John Hight, owner of Crooked Creek Outfitters, who represents the hunting and fishing interests that are a major part of the demand for passenger air service.

The same people, for the most part, were part of choosing Aerodynamics in 2016 and last summer, as it was being bought by California Pacific.

This time, SkyWest offered a better option than the city has had in recent years, they said.

“It was unanimous,” Isaacs said. “We weighed a lot of different factors and SkyWest clearly rose to the top.”

The plane size of SkyWest, based in St. George, Utah, is a key factor. SkyWest had not sought to serve Pierre before under the Essential Air Service program of the U.S. Department of Transportation that subsidizes air service to small, isolated communities.

“They are the world’s largest regional airline,” Isaacs said. That includes having a fleet of 200 CRJ-200 jets as well as the best agreements and arrangements with major airlines, such as code-sharing and interline agreements for booking, baggage and overall convenience in making connecting flights.

“For customers, it will be easier for people to find tickets, more seamless for people to travel wherever they are going throughout the world,” Isaacs said.

Having only four jets hurt California Pacific Airlines when it ran into a couple of difficulties last fall, company officials said.

SkyWest representatives visited Pierre and Watertown last month after learning the communities would get a new airline service.

Bringing in a new airline would mean pushing out of the way some California Pacific equipment that was left behind as CPAir exited rather abruptly, dropping its keys on the desk, Isaacs said.

SkyWest was eager enough to get a quick start that it opened up applications for interested employees from former California Pacific workers before it has been awarded the federal contract, Isaacs said.

“They said they would prefer to hire locally and I know some people have already applied,” Isaacs said. “I think (SkyWest) knows that the longest period to get off the ground is to get people hired and trained.”

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, who worked for California Pacific and for Aerodynamics Inc. said CPAir still owes her and a dozen other “ground handlers” at the Pierre airport about two months pay.

CPAir officials haven’t said much but have indicated that once they receive their last reimbursement from the federal DOT under the EAS subsidy program, their checks should be in the mail, the woman said last week.

She has worked in the airline industry in Pierre for more than 20 years and, until California Pacific, never missed a check, she said.