LEAVING ON A JET PLANE: SkyWest Wants to Drop Service to Eau Claire
airline’s request begins process to secure new carrier, airport manager says
The only commercial carrier serving the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in Eau Claire wants to stop serving the airport as early as this summer, citing a shortage of pilots.
SkyWest – a regional carrier that operates under the United Airlines banner – told the U.S. Department of Transportation in early March that it wanted to drop service to 29 airports nationwide, including the one in Eau Claire, which it has served since 2010.
“Although SkyWest Airlines Inc. would prefer to continue providing scheduled air service to these cities, the pilot staffing challenges across the airline industry preclude us from doing so,” the airline said in the regulatory filing, saying it was giving the required 90 days' notice of terminating service.
If you’re a frequent flyer, however, don’t panic: SkyWest’s announcement doesn’t mean an immediate end to airline service to Eau Claire or even an end in the long term, says Charity Zich, the airport’s manager. Instead, the filing merely begins what could be a months-long process of finding a new commercial airline to serve the airport, she said.
Within days of SkyWest filing its request, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an order prohibiting the airline from stopping its service at any of the 29 airports until replacement carriers are found. At the same time, it issued a request for proposals from interested airlines to provide what it terms “Essential Air Service” to these smaller-city airports, which are spread across 15 states.
As of right now, our expectation is that we won’t have any lapse in airline service between now and when another carrier could start in the market.
manager, Chippewa valley regional airport
“As of right now, our expectation is that we won’t have any lapse in airline service between now and when another carrier could start in the market,” Zich said.
However, finding a replacement carrier could be a long process. The last time the airport switched carriers was in 2010, about eight months after Delta Airlines filed a notice asking to discontinue service to the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport.
While Zich said she wasn’t surprised that SkyWest would seek to alter some of its services in light of pilot shortages, she was surprised that the airline is seeking to completely terminate its service to Eau Claire. She noted that – with nearly 40,000 commercial passengers served in 2021 alone – the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport was one of the five busiest airports on the list of 29 that SkyWest wants to discontinue serving.
Zich said that the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport has tried to diversify its services to withstand adverse economic impacts. In addition to offering daily commercial flights to and from Chicago via SkyWest, the airport has a fixed-based operator, Hawthorne Aviation, as well as a restaurant, conference facilities, car rental services, and more.
Despite the news from SkyWest, Zich remains upbeat about the airport’s future. “It might seem counterintuitive, but I think it’s important for people to continue to book on our airline,” she said. “We’ll have plenty of notice before another airline takes over, and it’s really important to continue to build from a business case standpoint for attracting another airline.”
The airport is in the process of reaching out to possible new airlines. The DOT has asked potential carriers to respond to its request for proposals to serve Eau Claire and the other airports by April 11.
As of last year, Utah-based SkyWest has a fleet of more than 500 airplanes and served about 250 destinations across North America. Skywest operates through partnerships with a number of major airlines, including United, Delta, American, and Alaska Airlines.
Last year, Chippewa Valley Regional Airport served 39,167 commercial passengers, 37,511 of whom flew via SkyWest and the rest on commercial charter planes. Include all private and commercial planes, there were 19,848 takeoffs and landings at the airport in 2021.