Passengers get off a United Airlines flight from Denver at Yellowstone Regional Airport on Tuesday.

Although YRA has hit a recent bumpy patch, there are positive signs on the horizon for the airport.

Passenger numbers greatly increased in 2021, coming close to reaching the traffic experienced in 2019. Aaron Buck, YRA airport director, said Thanksgiving holiday numbers were also strong at the airport.

The nonstop Chicago flight from O’Hare International Airport was reasonably well attended through most of the summer, but that traffic dropped off significantly in September, with an average of only 31 passengers per flight.

“The last two weeks (of September) are basically just flying empty,” Bucky Hall, a YRA board member and administrator for the Cody-Yellowstone Air Improvement Resources said. He said these flights caused the majority of the financial shortfall.

Due to that shortfall stemming from those sparsely filled flights, CYAIR, a nonprofit support group for the airport, must pay about $150,000 to United Airlines, nearly all of its $157,776 maximum revenue guarantee security deposit with the company for its summer Chicago flights. The State of Wyoming covers about 40% of this fee, leaving about $90,000 for CYAIR to pay. 

In 2019, the last time YRA operated the Chicago flights, CYAIR held on to all but $41,000 of this bill. In 2017 it had to pay the entire MRG.

The Chicago flight had been projected to bring about 800 emplanements, roughly the 2019 sum, over the summer, but that total fell 41% short with 475.

CARES Act funding cannot be used toward these expenses as that money can only be used directly by the airport.

Bucky Hall, a YRA board member and CYAIR administrator, said the nonprofit essentially had its coffers wiped clean to pay the 60% it owes for the United flights. Hall said he raised about $50,000 last year for CYAIR thanks to his fundraising efforts soliciting money from “low-hanging fruit” and a “couple heavy hitters.” He requested $26,000 from the Park County commissioners on Dec. 21 to help “prime the pump” for these future fundraising efforts, which they approved with a 3-1 vote.

“There’s a few more heavy hitters I’ll probably hit and probably score with,” he said.

Park County Commissioner Lloyd Thiel voted against granting this money, saying he has a hard time subsidizing airlines with taxpayer dollars.

“For non-hub airports, that’s how it works,” Hall said.

Delta pulls back

It was recently announced that Delta Airlines will not be servicing nonstop flights to YRA next summer. Hall and Buck have expressed confidence, based on conversations they’ve had with representatives of the airline, this will only be a one-year hiatus due to the rampant pilot shortages throughout the aviation industry they think will improve. 

Hall said Delta informed him they also cut the YRA flights because they make less money on leisure travelers. He countered this argument saying the Salt Lake flights were so well attended this summer they could have charged $100 more per ticket.

Hall said in addition to eliminating the nonstop flight from Salt Lake City to Cody, Delta also eliminated flights to Great Falls, Mont., Grand Junction, Colo., and Indianapolis from Salt Lake. He said other flights were also cut from the Delta hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. 

Despite the Jackson Hole Airport being closed from April 11-June 27 next spring due to construction, Delta refused to redirect any of its flights to that airport to YRA, preferring instead to go through Idaho Falls, Idaho. Delta didn’t express much interest in entering an MRG agreement either, Hall said.

He said YRA will be picking up 2-3 daily United Airlines’ Jackson flights however, likely on its larger 70-passenger jets. He said United plans to continue servicing YRA during the winter months for the foreseeable future.

Through their efforts to find flights to replace the 1-2 daily summer Delta flights, Buck and Hall have built a relationship with Alaska Airlines, which Hall said plans to set up a “mini-hub” in Boise, Idaho, in the near future, and has expressed strong interest in partnering with YRA.

“We’ll probably see at least summer service with Alaska,” Hall said. “It’s great if you’re flying west.”

Hall said during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic many veteran pilots retired, leading to a mass influx of less experienced pilots who navigate the regional flights to be “called up” to larger domestic flights, causing pilot shortages on the smaller flights that go to airports like YRA. 

“If a crew flies a red-eye into Denver, they time-out, then they have to find a different crew to fly that plane to Cody,” he said. “As soon as one flight is late, it can snowball like crazy.”

Hall said he expects the pilot shortage to “rectify itself” in the future as training and coordination for new commercial pilots has improved.

YRA has also been short on Transportation Security Administration staff for more than a year.  

Since the start of the pandemic, YRA has had three TSA screening officers test positive for COVID-19, but has not had any positive cases since Sept. 22. 

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