Board to ask SkyWest for new connecting hub

Dennis Hext, manager of the Houghton County Memorial Airport, addresses resident concerns with air travel to Chicago at Tuesday’s Houghton County Board meeting. (Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — With residents complaining about missed flights and other travel difficulties, Houghton County will ask SkyWest to provide air service to Detroit and/or Minneapolis instead of Chicago.

The letter, which the county board approved sending Tuesday, will be submitted as public comment to SkyWest this fall as part of its latest bid through Essential Air Services (EAS). The earliest SkyWest would be able to switch its service is the next two-year contract, which would begin in 2022.

Flying through O’Hare International Airport has drawn the ire of many frequent flyers in the area, such as those representing local universities and businesses.

“They are united in this request,” said Vice Chairman Tom Tikkanen. “It’s almost universal in the Copper Country. It’s an issue that’s not going away and it’s an opportunity, really, for everyone to link together and advocate, in a business-like and polite and direct fashion until we do regain that service.”

Houghton County has connected through Chicago since 2010, when SkyWest submitted the winning bid through EAS. The airline, an affiliate of United Airlines, flies twice a day to Chicago.

Mesaba Airlines, which had provided flights to Minneapolis as part of the Delta network, backed out of the Houghton market in 2010, saying the service was unprofitable. That triggered Houghton’s entry into the EAS program, which provides federal subsidies to carriers servicing smaller airports.

Additionally, O’Hare suffers a higher number of delays or shutdowns, partially due to a microclimate causing more electrical storms, Tikkanen said.

The Chicago connection makes conducting business downstate more burdensome, fliers said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“Our business community and the university is leaving here and going to Marquette, they’re going to Iron Mountain, they’re going to Rhinelander, and they’re going to Escanaba, in order to get out of here,” said Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Jeff Ratcliffe, who came Tuesday also representing a large group of 20-plus people from the economic and community development fields.

Guy St. Germain, who said he frequently flies, said there had been many anecdotal complaints locally about decreasing on-time performance and poor service locally.

“I would urge the board to do that in way you can, take on that leadership role and pull this community into better air service,” he said.

Another issue is the lack of agreements with other airports for emergency diversions, Tikkanen said. Because other airports are Delta carriers, flights diverted from Houghton because of weather are forced to land in Chicago rather than a closer airport.

Despite Ratcliffe and St. Germain’s reports, enplanements at the airport in July and August were up over the same period a year ago, said airport Director Dennis Hext.

Contrary to what Ratcliffe had said, the Department of Transportation cannot hold SkyWest in the market, Hext said.

“Escanaba went without service, Rhinelander went without service,” he said. “Don’t think the DOT can hold them in. They can’t.”

Houghton has between 45,000 and 55,000 enplanements per year, Hext said. It is bid out as part of a group of about 150,000 passengers that includes Paducah, Kentucky, Muskegon, Michigan, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Hext said while he understood people flying out of other airports when the price was too high, local numbers are important for acquiring better service.

“They’re going to look at it, and if they see that we’re declining or dropping really quick, then why would they bid on us?” he said.

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