Demand for flights grow as boardings increase at Scottsbluff airport

The first of dozens of passengers exits a United Express plane at Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff.

SCOTTSBLUFF — The Western Nebraska Regional Airport continues to increase in popularity over driving to Denver.

Once again, the airport saw more than 1,000 boardings in November and is on track for the same in December.

With the increase in numbers, many are asking when additional flights, or turn-arounds, will be added to the schedule. It isn’t as simple as just adding more flights. The airport works under an Essential Air Service (EAS) program from the federal government, which guarantees small communities can maintain a minimal level of air service. Under that program, the government will only pay for 12 flights per week.

Airport Director Raul Aguallo and Assistant Airport Director Cheryl Clause met with SkyWest officials on Dec. 3 to discuss the many requests for additional flights. For the airport in Scottsbluff to increase flights, they must consistently be flying at 80 percent capacity.

“We are at 60 percent now,” Aguallo said. “We think we will get there and get to 20,000 (boardings) in the next two years.”

Aguallo was speaking to his hairdresser who informed him she could not yet fly out of Scottsbluff. She recently had missed a flight elsewhere and by the time she arrived in Denver, she would have been stuck in Denver for 18 hours. Scottsbluff is a three-hour drive away.

“She said to me, ‘If you don’t add more turns, I can’t fly,’” Aguallo said. “I told her, ‘If you don’t fly, we can’t add more turns.’”

Boardings in November for SkyWest were only 1,504. As of Dec. 12, the airport was at 531 and on schedule for 1,350 for December. Counting only SkyWest flights, there have been 11,713 boardings for the year through the end of November. When calculating charter and medical flights, boardings were at 13,402 at the end of November.

“We hope to have 15,000 (boardings) by the end of the year,” Clause said.

With winter just around the corner, the airport is also preparing for more diversions. They had one weather diversion last week. On a scheduled flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Denver, the headwinds were such that planes needed to make extended approaches, so they stopped in Scottsbluff for fuel.

“With the winter season coming, they’ll start piling up on us again when Denver can’t land any planes,” Aguallo said.

In the meeting with SkyWest, Aguallo wanted to make sure ground security was taken care of with casino flights. Airport staff had been handling all aspects of the flight, but after discussing the issue with SkyWest, the airport will take care of things that happen below the wing, such as baggage and ramps, while SkyWest will handle everything above the wing, including ticketing. The next casino flight takes off in about three weeks and a contract is expected to be signed in a couple of days.

“The price worked out well,” Aguallo said. “We don’t have to worry about the liability on the above the wing stuff.”

FedEx has also begun talks about the possible expansion of their facility. They are now receiving two planes a day, some of which has to do with packages through Cabela’s. Talks have been on and off for a while, but Aguallo needs to make sure plans are approved by the engineers, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense.

“We asked them (FedEx) to come up with a plan so we can make sure it meets our guidelines,” Aguallo said.

One concern is the closeness of the proposed new building to the runway.

“Their plane would be 675 feet off centerline and we don’t want to interfere with that,” Aguallo said. “If the FAA changed that (distance) to 700 feet, then they could close our main runway.”

Talks are ongoing. With federal approval of a plan, Aguallo and the airport board could rest easy that changes would not occur.