Butte airport officials want to know whether people prefer two SkyWest flights per day to and from Salt Lake City as currently offered or a proposal by United Airlines to operate daily flights to Denver instead.
Both airlines are seeking federal subsidies for the flights and the U.S. Department of Transportation will ultimately decide in the coming weeks who gets them for the next two years. At least for the near future, Butte will continue to have just one destination city.
United says it can offer 13 weekly flights to and from Denver if it got about $744,000 in annual Essential Air Service subsidies. SkyWest, through Delta Airlines, would continue to offer 13 flights to and from Salt Lake City and add one more in the summer if it got about $796,000.
The U.S. DOT wants the Airport Authority Board in Butte to weigh in with a recommendation, and the board is now asking people to voice their opinions via a quick, two-question survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/AirContract.
But the board is considering other factors, too, and won’t necessarily recommend the proposal chosen by a majority of survey respondents. And the U.S. DOT won’t necessarily award the subsidies to the proposal the board prefers.
For example, many local officials in Cody, Wyoming favored continued air service to Salt Lake City over Denver, but in late 2017, the federal agency gave the subsidies to the Denver flights.
Local officials here say United has far more departures to far more direct destinations out of Denver than Delta Airlines, which handles flight arrangements to Butte through SkyWest, does out of Salt Lake City. That could increase the number of passengers using Butte’s Bert Mooney Airport.
They also note that boardings at Butte’s airport, or BTM, are down over the past 17 months but up sharply at other airports in Montana.
But Butte officials also say SkyWest and Delta have operated reliable service to Salt Lake City for years and they have faithful customers here.
Before board members decide which proposal to recommend next week, they want to hear what airport customers think. But they stress that the unscientific survey results won’t necessarily determine which proposal they favor.
“At the end of the day, we have to make a business decision,” said board member Brendan McDonough, who is also a Butte-Silver Bow commissioner.
No matter who gets the federal contract, private fundraising efforts are under way to get flights to a second destination from Butte. The money would be used as a “revenue guarantee” for an airline — a commitment of funds should it lose money on the new flight.
“We will still pursue a second flight,” said board member JR Hansen.
But the federal subsidies will go to only one carrier, and by January, it will be SkyWest flying to Salt Lake City or United flying to Denver.
The U.S. DOT considers numerous factors in awarding the subsidy, which is guaranteed money as long as the airline lives up to its terms. Factors include projected costs for fuel and flight crews, and airport rental expenses.
It also considers the requested subsidy amounts. SkyWest has asked for $796,249 annually for its Butte flights to Salt Lake while United requested $744,261 — about $52,000 less — for air service to Denver.
SkyWest won the subsidy contract in 2015 and again in 2017, when it was the only airline to bid for it. It flies to and from Salt Lake City twice a day six days a week and once on Saturdays, with ticketing done through Delta.
Under its current proposal, it says it would add another flight to Salt Lake each week in June, July and August without requiring more subsidies. “This increased summer service will facilitate additional growth in the market,” its proposal says.
United says it would offer 13 weekly flights to and from Denver, where it is the largest airline. “The service we propose will complement United’s other successful Montana services, including services to nearby Missoula, Helena and Bozeman,” its proposal says.
Hansen says if United gets the contract, it hopes to use SkyWest as its regional carrier to Denver, but that is not set in stone. United also says it would match the frequent-flyer status, or level of service benefits, that Butte customers now have with Delta, he said.
But perhaps the biggest difference is between the Delta hub in Salt Lake City and the United hub in Denver.
United has 502 departures out of Denver to 163 destinations each day, officials say. Delta has 282 departures from Salt Lake City to 95 destinations each day. Because of the additional connections, United believes it can get more people to fly out of Butte.
Hansen told fellow board members Wednesday that if he had to choose that day, he would prefer United to Denver. A consultant to the airport also favors United, mostly because of its numerous connections in Denver, he said.
But, Hansen said, “There are people in town who are faithful to Delta and they should be. It’s a great product.”
Board members say the survey, though not scientific, will give them an idea of where Butte airport users fall.
“Let’s hear from the community first,” said board Chairman David Holman.
“I want to hear what people have to say,” said member Mark Moodry.
The board will likely vote on a recommendation soon after survey results are in next week.