Yellowstone Regional Airport is making a commitment to attracting larger commercial jets to its runway with the recent purchase of equipment specifically made to work on the bigger and more reliable planes.
The $314,715 purchase for three pieces of ground equipment from AERO Specialties will now allow the airport to facilitate 70-passenger Embraer E175s, and even planes as large as a Boeing 737, on its runway.
“All together, they just provide better service,” said Aaron Buck, YRA director.
Currently, YRA can only serve the smaller and mostly outdated Bombardier CRJ 200s and the larger, but also outdated CRJ 700 jets. Not only do CRJ 200s, which make up the vast majority of YRA flights, carry fewer people, but Buck said they are also outdated and riddled with maintenance issue that delay and sometimes cause cancelled flights.
“There’s potential for a lot less delays,” Buck said.
By acquiring the equipment, the airport could bring in more passengers and offer them better service.
Buck mentioned how the original United Airlines agreement for the flights it is servicing between Chicago O’Hare International Airport and YRA this summer was originally intended to be on E175 jets.
“But the cost to bring in the equipment to rent was too much for the airlines,” he said.
YRA Board Member Bucky Hall also said at a June 9 meeting, the E175s tend to garner higher-level air flight crews as well. Less experienced pilots have more restrictive caps on the amount of hours they can fly in one day.
On one evening in June, there was a large overflow of passengers stuck at the airport due to weather and maintenance issues in Denver. Further exacerbating the problem was that many of the available pilots for that evening had already run out of the available hours they could fly.
“A lot of things that happened … would be less inclined to happen,” with the new equipment, Hall said.
The three new machines purchased by the airport include an Aircraft Start that initiates the plane’s engines, a GPU power mount that gives a plane power without having to be turned on, and a tug that can push the plane away from the terminal to avoid engine blasts on the terminal building.
Buck said the equipment will arrive by Sept. 1 and will be put to use shortly thereafter. Although it will be too late for any additional flights to be scheduled at the airport this summer, he said there is a “chance” the weekly United flights to Chicago that run through the end of September could be upgraded to E175s planes.
Without this ground equipment, YRA is not allowed to regularly host E175s, under Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Spend money to make money
It was an investment that was not an “if,” but a “when” for the airport. Buck said the CRJ 200s will likely be retired by the FAA in the near future, despite their use being extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Airframes on their CRJ200s are going to reach the end of their life in a timeframe you can measure in single-digit years,” Hall said.
According to investment resource The Motley Fool, Delta Air Lines “significantly increased” the average number of seats in its aircraft by reducing its 50-seat aircraft fleet by 63% from 2013-2019. This gave it a “meaningful competitive advantage over United,” as larger aircraft is typically cheaper to operate on a per-seat basis.
TMF also reported Delta plans to phase out all of its 50-seat jets by the end of 2023.
It would have cost the airport $45,000 to rent the ground equipment for one summer, Buck said.
Now, by owning the equipment, YRA will now be able to charge commercial airlines like SkyWest Airlines a similar fee for using it.
And with the airport flush with cash from the $18 million in CARES Act grants it received in 2020, it’s an opportune time for YRA to make the purchase that the YRA board unanimously approved.
Funding for the project came from its $5 million CARES Act operations and maintenance umbrella, which will be delivered from the federal government through May 2024.
Buck said although the first year of spending from this account was $108,000 under budget, a recent generator project has now put the airport $60,000 over budget. He added the airport still projects to be $120,000 under budget annually moving forward with this account. There is also potential the airport could pull money from its development projects account to add to the O&M budget.
By obtaining this equipment, YRA could not only garner more direct flights, but could also serve as a diversion hub for the region.
Many of the flights serving Billings International Airport and other airports in the West are on E175s, making Cody an opportune airport to divert flights to in case of inclement weather scenarios. This would provide the airport additional landing and fuel flowage fees, not to mention the potential of added lodging revenue for the city.