Pierre and Watertown challenge federal DOT airport decision

The communities of Pierre and Watertown are raising questions about a new “EAS” contract with the federal government.
Two South Dakota cities are raising concerns about a major decision regarding air service to the cities.
Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 7:58 AM CDT
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The Essential Air Service Program (EAS) is intended to provide reliable commercial air service to more isolated, rural communities.

Residents of Pierre and Watertown are say that they have that currently with SkyWest, but wonder if they will continue to have that now that their contract with SkyWest appears over.

SkyWest, through United Airlines, has been providing air service to both communities through EAS since 2019. Watertown has flights to and from Chicago and Denver, Pierre to and from Denver alone. However, that contract expires June 1st, and the new contract went to the lowest bidder, Denver Air.

Residents and government officials alike say that SkyWest has provided far and away the best air service to the area in a long time.

“We’ve been working directly with Watertown on a request for a rebid,” said Jamie Huizenga, Pierre City Commissioner. In this capacity, Huizenga oversees affairs at the Pierre Regional Airport. “When the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) announced they gave the federal EAS contract for Watertown and Pierre to Denver Air, that was a concern.”

The EAS program is a federally subsidized program that allows airlines to place bids on providing services to certain airports. The federal government then agrees to pay a certain amount over the course of a two year contract.

Denver Air’s services to the cities would be $7.7 million dollars cheaper for the federal government, as compared to using SkyWest based on the bidding process that happened. However, a number of the involved parties are now asking for a rebid, to include United Airlines.

“One of the biggest concerns is just the unknown of a new airline,” explains Huizenga. “We know what we have got with SkyWest, they have been dependable, and when you’re flying SkyWest, they are labeled United Express... You are essentially flying United from Pierre to Denver, getting off in the concourse with the United planes. That is of tremendous value.”

While the chances of a rebid effort are still up in the air, United Airlines is not the only one requesting it. Senator John Thune and Governor Kristi Noem have both made their cases to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“One of the key things is when they out prior for a bid, the market conditions were quite a bit different,” said South Dakota Transportation Secretary Joel Jundt. “We were in a pandemic situation, and now we are somewhat removed from that. Businesses, at least from the air services perspective, are somewhat stabilized and picking up.”

For their part, Denver Air has said that they are prepared to provide quality and reliable air service to both Pierre and Watertown, and Pierre city officials say they are prepared to work with them should the rebid effort fail.

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