Airport’s quest for renewed service continues

Airport’s quest for renewed service continuesINYOKERN AIRPORT — As the Inyokern Airport team struggles to restore commuter air service to the remote Indian Wells Valley, General Manager Scott Seymour points to existing challenges within the industry that have beleaguered the local endeavor.

“When we lost service in 2013, that was partly driven by what was happening with commuter airlines,” said Seymour. “And since then, those driving forces have mostly gotten worse.”

In 2013 the Federal Aviation Administration also enacted changes in regulations that effectively created a shortage of pilots and drove up costs. Exacerbating the situation was a federal freeze on air travel — which knocked out IYK’s top customer.

By the time regular travel was restored, and IYK had procured some $500,000 in funds to help reestablish the local market, the 19- to 30-seat commuter planes had been all but phased out of the industry.

“In that time we have also seen the collapse of a lot of the airlines that were operating in the commuter markets. And what we are left with are small planes that operate essentially as a charter service or the airlines that are too big to come here,” said Seymour.

Between 2013 and 2016, 37 airports have lost commuter air service. “So during this same timeframe, we are also competing with all of those other markets to restore service.”

There have been other challenges in bringing in one of the smaller airlines, said Seymour. Many of the commuter operators lack baggage and handling agreements with larger airlines, leaving passengers to go through screening twice in order to collect their baggage between flights.

And although single-engine aircraft offer the lowest price point for travelers, those services are difficult to get authorized for reimbursement to those flying on federal business.

“We are reviewing all possible factors in hopes of finding the best fit for our community,” said Seymour. “But the unfortunate reality is that the service we grew accustomed to before 2013 simply does not exist any longer.

“This does not mean we have given up. Our leaders in the community and at China Lake have expressed their eagerness to see a return of service. Our local businesses and individuals have contributed $100,000 to the cause, and our board remains as committed as ever to finding a solution. But these hurdles have drawn out the time line far longer than we had thought they would.”

One glimmer of hope on the horizon is a Department of Transportation working group that was recently ratified in order to work with Congress and DOT to find ways to protect the commuter airline industry, and restore service to remote markets.

“Their report has not yet been made public, but our consultant tells us there are several changes that could relieve some of the most severe restrictions that have hamstrung the industry,” said Seymour.

“Some of the proposed changes would increase our chances of attracting a twin-engine aircraft from a provider that has existing baggage and handling agreements. And by having more seats to absorb the fixed costs, it could drive prices down to a more affordable range as well.”

Seymour said that none of these changes can be taken for granted, but he has reached out to elected officials in hopes of securing their support for policies that protect rural markets.

“This is our main priority at the airport,” said Seymour. “There have been times I have wished we could move more quickly, but it turns out there are some developments that would have hurt us if we had moved forward in haste.

“So we continue to move forward with caution.”

Pictured: The state-of-the-art terminal at Inyokern Airport, ready for a new vendor. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-05-19