Commercial air service to Enid and Ponca City will end Aug. 31 after the U.S. Transportation Department announced it will stop paying a subsidy to the airline that provided flights.
The Transportation Department pays Great Lakes Airlines about $1.3 million a year to provide daily flights from Enid and Ponca City to Denver. The department decided to end the payments Sept. 1, according to an order filed late last week.
The last Great Lakes flights to the two communities will be Aug. 31, said Monica Taylor, director of sales and marketing Great Lakes Airlines, based in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Enid and Ponca City have received federally subsidized air service for nearly 20 years, but failed to attract enough passengers to continue to meet requirements. In Enid, the federal government was paying for $231.71 for each passenger. In Ponca City, the government was paying $338.81 per passenger, according to Transportation Department figures.
Many cities get subsidized air service under the Essential Air Service program. Government funds allow the airlines to remain profitable while providing service to smaller markets. For the year ending in March, Great Lakes had carried 2,746 people from Enid and 1,878 people from Ponca City.
Great Lakes employs eight people in Oklahoma. Employees who do not transfer to another Great Lakes location will lose their jobs, Taylor said.
By law, the Transportation Department can not subsidize more than $200 per passenger when there are other airports available. The communities were warned last year that their passenger counts were not high enough to keep the subsidized air service.
"We had hoped that Great Lakes' reduced service ... might serve to bring the communities subsidies per passenger below the $200 ceiling," Michael W. Reynolds, acting assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs wrote in the Transportation Department's final order. "We stressed that our selection of Great Lake represented the communities' last chance to retain their subsidy eligibility."
Great Lakes began flying to the two communities in March 2005. Officials in both communities say they will continue lobbying the Oklahoma congressional delegation in hopes that a last minute deal can be struck.
"We haven't given up yet," said Don Nuzum, Ponca City airport manager. "We're still working on it. We're looking at some different scenarios. We're working all the angles we can think of. We're going to try until the bitter end."
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne both have worked with Transportation Department officials to keep air service in Enid and Ponca City. Both cities are nearly 100 miles from the closest hub airport, in Oklahoma City.
In a letter to Maria Cino, acting Transportation secretary, Inhofe asked the department to review how it classifies the Oklahoma City airport. Right now, Will Rogers World Airport is considered a medium hub airport, but a report by the Regional Aviation Partners shows that its numbers qualify it as a small hub.
If Will Rogers is classified as a sub hub, there would be no limit on how much money the Transportation Department spends to subsidize commercial air service, said Ryan Thompson, Inhofe's press secretary.
Both leaders say they will continue to work for a solution, but in the mean time the communities are without out a vital economic development tool, said Ernie Currier, Enid mayor.
"When we're trying to lure business here," Currier said. "We will miss it. It's been an important part of the local economy. Great Lakes has been a good partner."
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