By BILL SHEA
Federal transportation officials are seeking a new airline to serve Fort Dodge Regional Airport, but at the same time they're asking local leaders to justify the airport's place in a program that provides subsidies for flights.
Fort Dodge has not been served by commercial flights since Great Lakes Airlines abruptly suspended service on Feb. 1, citing a shortage of pilots. That airline was receiving a $1,798,693 federal Essential Air Service subsidy to support its flights to and from Fort Dodge. However, it stopped getting the money when it suspended service, and it did not receive any federal money for any previous flights that it canceled.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has formally reopened the search for a new airline to serve Fort Dodge. The deadline for airlines to submit their proposals is June 2.
A search completed in February netted proposals from Great Lakes Airlines and Air Choice One Airlines. Both proposals were rejected at the urging of the Fort Dodge Regional Airport Commission. Commission members cited unreliability, uncompetitive fares and the use of single-engine planes by Air Choice One as reasons for rejecting the proposals.
Rhonda Chambers, the airport's director of aviation, said she's already contacting airlines and trying to encourage them to submit proposals.
''We talk to them all, but they never tell us if they're going to put in a proposal,'' she said.
Soliciting proposals from airlines is not the only action the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking in regards to the local airport. It has also issued what federal officials call a show-cause order which essentially directs airport leaders to prove that the facility belongs in the Essential Air Service program.
According to Chambers, under a 2012 law, an airport in the program must have maintained an average of 10 boardings or more per day between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013, if they are within 175 miles of the nearest large or medium hub airport.
She said Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Neb., is the nearest large or medium hub airport. She said the Federal Aviation Administration has found that Fort Dodge Regional Airport is within 175 miles of Eppley Airfield. That finding is debatable, she said.
''It depends on which way you drive,'' she said. ''We're right on the line with that.''
Since the Federal Aviation Administration lists Fort Dodge Regional Airport as being within 175 miles of Eppley Airfield, the requirement of an average of 10 or more boardings will have to be met or a waiver must be obtained from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Chambers said Department of Transportation figures show Fort Dodge had an average of 9.4 enplanements per day between Oct. 1, 2012, and Sept. 30, 2013.
''We knew this language was included in the 2012 amendment, but given our past enplanement history, we didn't feel this would be an issue for us,'' she said. ''We missed the 10 passengers per day by 196 passengers for the entire year or 16 passengers per month.''
She said Great Lakes Airlines canceled 59 flights during that time period due to mechanical problems.
She added that those boarding numbers are the lowest recorded at the airport since 1976.
''It is very reasonable to argue that given our past enplanement history along with the amount of canceled flights coupled with the unreliable service provided by Great Lakes there is justification for us to file and receive a waiver from the secretary as outlined in the amendment,'' she said.
Chambers said she will file a request for a waiver from the 10 passenger per day requirement as soon as federal officials announce they will begin accepting such requests. She added that she's confident Fort Dodge will get a waiver and remain in the Essential Air Service program.
''I can't guarantee it, but it's highly probable,'' she said.