Airport Officials Seek More Flights Between Salina and Manhattan, Kan.

Dec. 20--Severing scheduled air service ties between Salina and Manhattan might be good for both cities, according to the managers of both airports.

The key is convincing the federal government for a raise in Essential Air Service subsidies.

"I think it would benefit both of the communities. You guys would have more seats available and so would I," said Russ Johnson, manager of the Manhattan Regional Airport.

Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, doing business at Salina as U.S. Airways Express, submitted a four-option proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation for a two-year contract beginning March 1.

Salina Airport Authority board members will discuss the proposals at their monthly meeting beginning at 8 a.m. Wednesday at the M.J. Kennedy Air Terminal 3237 Arnold.

The current EAS contract that provided $721,605 annually for the past two years, expires Feb. 28.

It provided funding to Mesa for three, one-stop flights from Salina to Kansas City -- each with a stop in Manhattan.

Keeping that status quo would require $974,008 annually, according to a proposal from Mesa. Splitting the cities and cutting one nonstop round trip from Salina to Kansas City, would require $1.1 million, or $128,365 more EAS funding. That's a difference of $380,768 over the current contract.

"It's still a lot of money for a program whose financial resources are really fairly small compared to the demand for Essential Air Service subsidies," said Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.

But considering the potential benefits, he said, it would be worthwhile.

In November, 192 passengers boarded U.S. Airways Express flights at Salina, a rate of 2,304 passengers a year. Mesa has estimated that splitting Salina service would more than double that monthly number to 4,732 a year. Rogers' estimate is 6,100.

Some of the low passenger numbers in Salina are attributed to competition for seats with Manhattan, which uses a federal grant to cut its fares in half. Since the program started in September 2004, passenger numbers in Manhattan have increased 60 percent, Johnson said "Generally speaking, I think most of the seats are taken (in Manhattan)," he said.

With the projected growth from the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division returning to Fort Riley, Johnson said, "we could probably generate enough traffic" to eliminate the need for EAS subsidies in Manhattan.

Salina leaders will coordinate efforts to lobby for the extra subsidies, Rogers said.

"If a subsidy can be eliminated or be substantially reduced due to increased passenger numbers, that's why the DOT should consider it," he said.

The recent merger between U.S. Airways and America West would improve connections from Kansas City west, Rosgers said.

The U.S. Transportation Department also received a proposal from Nashville-based Regionsair to provide three combined round trips from Salina and Manhattan to St. Louis. Rogers does not recommend that proposal, because it's "too costly."

DOT spokesman Bill Mosley confirmed receipt of the proposals Monday.

Mosley said it's not known if a decision will be made before the end of February.