There have been some turbulent years recently for the airline industry in Nebraska and elsewhere. But at the airport in Grand Island, things are looking up.
On a recent bright, sunny midafternoon at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, a planeload of just-arrived passengers was moving through the small terminal. Among them was Andy Olivo, on his way to Omaha for a Boys Town alumni convention. "It's kind of nice," Olivo said, looking around. "I've never been here before. So it'll be interesting.
Olivo said it was cheaper to fly to Grand Island, as opposed to Lincoln or Omaha, from where he got on the plane in Dallas. And he didn't mind driving an extra couple of hours to get to his destination.
A short distance away, Casey Knowlton was waiting for the plane's return trip. Knowlton's boyfriend, Justin Brown of Grand Island, bought her ticket. Brown says he checked into flying her back from a larger airport, but it wasn't worth it. "It was ten dollars cheaper at Lincoln or Omaha, so it was kind of a no-brainer here and you know, it was a lot more convenient, the parking's free and everything like that so it was very easy, very nice, great service," Brown said.
Airport Director Mike Olson said those kind of reactions are part of a larger trend. In 2008, he said, about 8,000 passngers boarded planes in Grand Island. This year, he predicts, about 45,000 will. "That's about a 450 percent increase in the last three years, making us one of the fastest-growing airports in the country," Olson said.
Olson predicted that within 5 years, Grand Island, with a population of around 50 thousand, could have more passengers than Lincoln, whose population is more than 250 thousand.
But John Wood, executive director of Lincoln's Airport Authority, isn't so sure about that. "Grand Island's done a great job in the last couple of years of attracting some new air service, and it's nice to see them having some success locally in their passengers," Wood said. "Whether that will result in a four- or five-fold increase in passenger levels over the next few years to get to where Lincoln is, is another story."
Lincoln's airport served about four times as many passengers as Grand Island last year. But while Grand Island's passenger loads are growing, Lincoln's have dropped by nearly half from their peak in 1999.
One factor was Allegiant Air's moving the Nebraska point of origin for its Las Vegas flights from Lincoln to Grand Island in 2008. The company gave as reasons lower costs and competition. Wood says Allegiant was having a hard time competing with cheaper Southwest Airlines flights out of Omaha.
Allegiant has since added flights from Grand Island to Phoenix. And the flights to Dallas on American Eagle began this June. Olson says the improvement and effect on passenger totals has been huge. "Before American Eagle started we had Great Lakes airlines, which flew 19-seat turboprops - no restroom, no flight attendant - and that was a long flight in a turboprop. That was an hour and 25 minutes," he said. Now, with the regional jets used by American Eagle, "We can fly 200 miles farther to Dallas in the same amount of time, but flying at 35 thousand feet at 500 miles an hour vs. 16 thousand feet at 250 miles an hour."
One thing the former flights to Denver and the current ones to Dallas have in common is that they are all subsidized. American Eagle will get $2.2 million for connecting Grand Island to Dallas in each of the next two years under the federal government's Essential Air Service program. (To see the U.S. Department of Transportation's approval for Essential Air Service subsidies for Grand Island, click here).
That program began as an attempt to maintain service to smaller airports when airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s. It provides subsidies for service to five other Nebraska communities -- Alliance, Chadron, Kearney, McCook, North Platte and Scottsbluff - all of which still have Great Lakes flights to Denver.
The Essential Air Service program was originally was supposed to last 10 years. But it's still hanging on, although federal budget pressures make its future uncertain. Olson says he doesn't want to depend on it. "It's been my goal since my first day here to get off of Essential Air Service. We don't want to be subsidized because then we're not in control of our own destiny," he declared.
Olson said the best outcome would be for American Eagle to make enough money by serving Grand Island on its flights that it wouldn't need subsidies. Based on the increase in passengers over the last three years, he wants to expand Grand Island's passenger terminal from its current 9,000 square feet to 25,000 or 30,000 next year.
But, citing the roller coaster ride of passenger counts due to things like deregulation and terrorist attacks, Lincoln airport's Wood suggested a note of caution. "This is an industry that changes constantly, the dynamics change almost weekly," Wood said. "It's tough to make predictions and be accurate even a year out, much less several years out."
As to Grand Island's future, Wood said "Good luck them, and we'll see what happens."