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Passengers disembark a United Express flight from Denver at the Sheridan County Airport Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020.

 

For Wyoming residents, air service isn’t just a convenience — it’s a necessity.

The wide-open spaces attracting many to the state can also make road travel long and strenuous, especially when you factor in unpredictable Wyoming weather and wildlife.

That makes the state’s 25 public-use general aviation airports, including the Sheridan County Airport, all the more important, according to Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon. Air service helps connect an often-isolated state with the rest of the world and country.

“Many communities in Wyoming depend on general aviation and airports for commerce, health, safety and more,” Gordon said in a 2019 proclamation. “Our nation’s aviation infrastructure represents an important public benefit.”

The Sheridan County Airport provides Sheridan residents and visitors with plenty of access to the world outside Wyoming. In just an hour and 15 minutes, you could find yourself in Denver with access to more than 160 cities across the country and the world. From Honolulu to Cancun, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, countless exciting destinations are just a connection away from Sheridan.

“Flying out of Sheridan, you get the same perks and benefits you would get flying out of any other city with United Airlines,” said Renee Obermueller, board member of Sheridan’s Critical Air Service Team. “It really is a seamless travel experience.”

 

A dream takes flight

The Sheridan County Airport started operation in 1919 — just 16 years after the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk. The first plane to land on the grass field runway was a wood-and-canvas plane owned by Dr. Harry Buffum, who sought access to rural patients the automobiles of the day could not provide.

Just months after Buffum’s successful flight, T.C. Diers and George Scales of the Sheridan Commercial Club, now known as the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce, asked Sheridan County commissioners for funds to build the county’s first hangar. At a meeting on Nov. 4, 1919, the commissioners decided “it would be of vast interest to this community to establish an aviation field near this city,” according to previous Sheridan Press reporting. So the city, county and Sheridan Commercial Club each contributed $650 toward the $2,000 cost of establishing a hangar for local aircraft.

For those first few years, the airport was primarily used by private operators, like Dr. Buffum, and visiting “barnstormers” that entertained communities with their aeronautic acrobatic displays. But in 1931, a small startup known as Wyoming Air Service began offering the first commercial flights out of Sheridan on a daily route between Casper, Cheyenne and Denver.

Within a matter of years, Wyoming Air Service was bought out by Western Airlines, which provided air service to Sheridan County through 1980. From there, the county contracted with a variety of carriers, from Big Sky Airlines and Continental Express to United Express and Great Lakes Airlines.

 

Out of the ashes

The history of aviation in Sheridan isn’t without some recent turbulence. Five years ago, the city was left without an air service provider.

“It came rather suddenly when Great Lakes Airlines left in 2015,” Obermueller recalled. “We were left with nothing.”

Small air service providers like Great Lakes Airlines had been struggling to provide reliable service due to pilot shortages and equipment shortages caused by new federal regulations requiring more hours for pilot training, according to John Stopka, Sheridan County airport manager.

“It’s always been kind of assumed it would happen like this,” Stopka told The Sheridan Press in 2015. “Ever since they switched to a nine-seater plane, they’ve been losing money. You can’t fly one flight a day and make any money.”

In 2013, the Critical Air Service Team (CAST) formed as a group of interested air service stakeholders including government officials, local business owners and citizens, dedicated to bringing a reliable air service carrier to Sheridan. Following Great Lakes’ departure, the organization became a community voice that advised local officials in their search for a new carrier and provided the county with the necessary leverage to attract a new carrier.

CAST accomplished its goal in 2015 when it contracted with Key Lime Air, which operated out of the Sheridan County Airport as Denver Air Connection. CAST directly contracted with Key Lime Air, which meant it held a contract with the company and had direct input over Denver Air Connection operations, from flight scheduling to revenue management.

“It was excellent service and excellent reliability,” Obermueller said. “I know that if people still had a choice between the Dornier 328-100 flown by Denver Air Connection and the CRJ-200 being flown by SkyWest, they’d choose Denver Air. It was a little more comfortable, had a little more of that hometown atmosphere.”

Denver Air Connection served Sheridan customers until early 2020 when SkyWest Airlines — operating as United Express — took over air service, Obermueller said.

The partnership between the Sheridan County Airport and SkyWest was part of a larger plan developed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Commission to improve the quality of air service in critical communities around the state.

WYDOT scrapped its previous air service development strategy of subsidizing commercial air service in Wyoming communities in favor of bundling four critical air service communities — Sheridan, Gillette, Riverton and Rock Springs — into one contract, hoping their combined purchasing power could attract a larger airline.

The strategy worked, and the communities and WYDOT finalized an agreement with SkyWest in the summer of 2019. WYDOT holds the contract with SkyWest, which has resulted in CAST adopting more of a local advocacy role.

 

United we stand (and fly)

The current air service through SkyWest has several advantages for travelers, Obermueller said.

The planes have increased capacity, and the pricing is generally better. But the biggest plus may be the code share between SkyWest and United.

The code share creates what Obermueller calls “a seamless travel experience.” Because SkyWest offers the United brand, online travel agents such as Expedia and Priceline have added Sheridan as a destination and booking flights to and from Sheridan is as easy as booking flights to Los Angeles or New York.

“You can book a flight and book it through to your final destination,” Obermueller said. “You don’t need to worry about picking up your luggage when you arrive in Denver. It will travel with you to your destination as long as you fly United.”

As of January 2021, there is one daily roundtrip United Express flight out of Sheridan.

As SkyWest launched during the first few months of 2020, Sheridan saw unprecedented demand for its air service, according to Obermueller.

During the first two months of 2020, SkyWest looked as if it would reach its 10,000 enplanements required for federal funding in record time. January brought 1,223 enplanements, a 62% increase from January 2019. February saw 1,611 enplanements, an increase of 134% from February 2019.

But then COVID-19 happened.

Enplanements dropped by 48% from February to March’s 838 enplanements. April’s drop was even more precipitous — a 91% month-to-month decrease to just 74 enplanements.

“We started the year off great,” CAST board President Steve Maier said. “By March, we were down to almost nothing. And it got worse before it got better.”

Indeed, spring 2020 was rough for air service. Starting in April, the service had four months where enplanements saw a year-to-year decrease from 2019. April was down by 89% year-to-year and May was down by 82%. June was down by 63% and July was down by 9%.

But by July, things started to even out a bit, Maier said. The air service still hasn’t returned to early 2020 numbers, but it’s come close at times. August and October both saw 1,090 enplanements — a year-to-year increase of 5% and 9% respectively. September’s enplanements were just 2% less than 2019’s numbers with 962 enplanements.

Obermueller said she remains optimistic about the air service’s future as United daily connections out of Denver have slowly increased from a low point of 127 in June to 312 in October. Obermueller said connections out of Denver are “vital” to the success of the local air service because it gives customers access to more potential destinations across the country and the world.

 

A worthwhile investment

In the capacity purchase agreement, the state covers 60% of the costs of air service while local governments — the city of Sheridan and Sheridan County — split the remaining 40%.

Since March, the agreement has been largely subsidized through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, according to Obermueller. That’s why, of a total $855,873 bill since March, the city and county only had to pay a combined total of $34,518.

Sheridan County Commission Chair Nick Siddle said air service remains a funding priority for the county even as budgets tighten. According to a 2013 economic impact study from WYDOT, Sheridan County Airport supports 104 jobs related to airport activities. In addition, spending by visitors who arrive in Wyoming via Sheridan County Airport supports another 124 jobs.

“Air service is pretty vital to this community,” Siddle said. “We definitely feel the responsibility to keep it going.”

Sheridan County Airport Manager John Stopka said the airport uses its funds from the city, county and state for projects that improve passengers’ travel experience. Earlier this year, the airport completed an update to the main terminal.

“We updated the terminal in late January and added onto the terminal to increase the scanning area for TSA,” Stopka said. “We have more room for the screening of passengers, which has been great in light of COVID and the need for social distancing. We also enlarged our waiting area so it can hold up to 70 passengers.”

Next up is a new long-term parking lot, Stopka said.

“There will be a long-term and overflow parking lot south of the current lot,” Stopka said. “We will go out to bid sometime in February with construction starting early summer. That will be our big project for 2021.”

While county and city funding is key to the long-term health of Sheridan air service, it is equally important for community members to keep flying out of the Sheridan County Airport, Obermueller said. Reaching 10,000 enplanements per year allows the airport to receive $1 million in federal funding, which can be used for airport maintenance.

Luckily, there are plenty of reasons to fly into and out of Sheridan. Whether traveling for business or leisure, there are numerous exciting destinations just one connection away.

“I think, for the reliability and the convenience, we really can’t be beat,” Obermueller said.

Siddle agreed.

“Our provider with United Express has been doing a great job for us, and the service in and out of Denver has been very reliable,” Siddle said. “Wherever your travels take you, Sheridan is a great place to start.”

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