If you’re thinking about driving to Salina to catch a cheap flight to Denver, know that you’ll soon pay more for an airline ticket.
Beginning April 9, a new airline will provide twice-daily jet service from Salina to the Mile High City.
It will mean a higher airfare — plus a stop in Hays — than people traveling from Salina to Denver paid on Great Lakes Airlines’ 30-seat turboprops.
But that higher airfare will still be considerably less than what it costs to fly from Wichita to Denver, a route that has seen declining demand because of high ticket prices.
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Eisenhower National Airport officials in Wichita don’t expect that to change, even when fares from Salina to Denver rise.
“I imagine there will be continued leakage” of passengers opting to use different airports or methods of travel to Denver, said Valerie Wise, air service and business development manager for the Wichita Airport Authority.
Still cheaper than Wichita
Last month the federal Transportation Department awarded SkyWest Airlines a two-year contract to provide subsidized air service at the Salina airport for flights to Chicago and Denver.
SkyWest, which will operate in Salina as United Express, will offer the service on a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet and receive an annual subsidy of $3 million through the Essential Air Service program. The program is intended to subsidize airline service to rural airports that otherwise couldn’t profitably support such service.
SkyWest replaces Great Lakes Airlines, whose subsidized contract ends March 31.
With SkyWest as the new carrier, there will be more seats on each flight and jet service. Pilots will be able to fly higher and better avoid bad weather.
But ticket prices will climb and in some cases more than double.
Now, the lowest fare on a Monday-to-Friday round-trip flight from Salina to Denver — booked 30 days in advance — is $158, according to Great Lakes’s website.
That same trip at the lowest fare would cost $392 round-trip on the new United Express flights from Salina, according to united.com.
But the same trip on United from Wichita is more than double the fare you’ll pay in Salina. United is the only airline that offers nonstop flights from Wichita to Denver.
The Eagle looked at what it would cost for one person flying on United to Denver, departing on Monday and returning Friday of the same week. That trip, no matter if it was booked this week for an April or September trip, would cost $811, according to united.com. That’s its cheapest fare.
If that same person were to depart on a Saturday and return the following Friday, the cheapest round-trip fare from Wichita to Denver on United would cost $311 — $500 cheaper.
A Saturday departure from Salina on United Express with a Friday return was also lower: $193.
Mile High effort
The bottom line for Wichita airport officials: Even though the United Express flights from Salina will have a higher fare in the future, they will still be much lower that fares for mid-week travel from Wichita to Denver.
Wise said she’s been told by Wichita business travelers who need to fly to Denver and back during the week that they’ll make the hour-and-a-half drive to Salina, where airport parking is free.
Or, they will choose other ways to travel to Denver.
“They tell me they’re using corporate jets, they’re driving, they’re using video conferencing,” she said.
It’s not clear just how many people from the Wichita area travel to Salina for flights to Denver.
Salina Regional Airport recorded 16,960 passenger enplanements/deplanements between October 2016 and October 2017, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That number would encompass all the airline passengers flying to and from Salina because Great Lakes offers the airport’s only scheduled airline service.
Tim Rogers, Salina Airport Authority executive director, said the authority doesn’t track how many people from Wichita are flying from Salina.
Wise said she continues to have conversations with United officials about lowering the high mid-week fares from Wichita.
“I just perhaps have to find another carrier to add some competition,” she said, noting, “I am always looking to add service to our market, where it makes sense.”
United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said in an e-mail the airline doesn’t discuss its pricing strategy when asked if it has considered lowering its mid-week fares from Wichita to Denver.
Nor did he directly answer whether United’s 5 percent drop in passenger enplanements/deplanements between 2016 and 2017 — a decrease of 23,642 — was related to its to high Denver fares.
“In every market we serve, including Wichita and Denver, we continuously monitor supply and demand to determine competitive offerings that meet the needs of our customers,” he said in the e-mail.