With it just opening up last week, I had the opportunity to take the brand new ADI/Great Lakes Aviation flight between Watertown and Denver to catch the big concert I bought tickets for earlier this year; the Go Go’s & Huey Lewis, as well as to see a couple siblings as well as nieces & nephews.
The Watertown Public Opinion had their own fawning review of the flight last week, which returned flight service to Watertown for the first time in 11 months. But once you get past city aldermen who were happy to get flight service returned to the community, what’s the true picture on what you’re getting? Read on.
Why did they start this flight? After not having flights for several months, the federal government was convinced that they should be brought back. And several million in subsidies didn’t hurt:
Federal aviation officials issued an order Thursday selecting Aerodynamics Inc. (ADI) to receive $4.5 million a year in subsidies to provide scheduled air service to Pierre as early as Aug. 1.
The Pierre City Commission recommended ADI last month to the U.S Department of Transportation, after the city’s air service task force interviewed officials from ADI and from Great Lakes Airlines, which has been serving Pierre for decades. It was the second such recommendation in the past 18 months in a convoluted and messy process that has been a double rejection for Great Lakes which continues to serve Pierre.
The order dated June 2 from DOT said ADI has a two-year contract under the Essential Air Service program to fly 12 weekly flights from Watertown and Pierre to Denver from Aug. 1, 2016 to July 31, 2018. The annual subsidy for the Pierre-Denver leg will be $4.52 million, while for the Watertown leg ADI will receive $2.27 million.
Cities like Brookings (45 min to the SF Airport) which once had federally subsidized flights did not see them return to town, but as noted, Watertown, which is an hour and a half away, and Pierre which is 3 1/2 hours away successfully lobbied for their return. I don’t see ensuring flight access to South Dakota’s State Capitol as an unnecessary evil, although I’m sure you all will be debating over it in the comment section. As for Watertown, those flights have generated a bit more controversy…
In 2014, the taxpayer-backed subsidies for flights in and out of Watertown and Devils Lake both ranked among the 10 most expensive for taxpayers, on a per-passenger basis. Among subsidized flights in the continental U.S., Watertown’s was the third-most expensive, and Devils Lake tied for eighth.
Though Congress has made efforts to scale back the program, it has only increased in size. And for airports like the one in Watertown, the subsidy is important to keep the airport open—not only for residents flying out of town for the holidays but also to help grow the economy.
“When we have companies looking at Watertown, they need to be able to get in and out of here on a timely basis,” Thorson said.
The mayor said the per-passenger subsidy for his city skyrocketed this year after Great Lakes, the airline servicing the city, became so unreliable that residents stopped buying tickets.
10 Cities receiving the most in per-passenger subsidy, 2014 (excluding Alaska):
1. Chadron, Neb. — $977
2. Clovis, N.M. — $830
3. Watertown, S.D. — $738
Regardless of the subsidy debate, since they started flying this week, I jumped on that flight as opposed to one out of Sioux Falls, since my abode of Brookings is centrally located.
So, what kind of air service are we getting or our tax dollars?
For starters, we’re getting a darned nice jet flight, as opposed to a pokey turboprop, with a quick stop in Pierre. Literally, the flight leg between Pierre & Watertown was little more than a 1/2 hour. Pierre to Denver? 1 hour. I found that pretty comparable to Sioux Falls to Denver, with the exception that getting through the TSA in Watertown is a breeze.
When arriving, you do disembark at the end of Terminal A, which seems older, and is a bit out in the boondocks, with no facilities. Even the bathroom is a bit of a walk. Getting luggage had us all hanging out at least a 1/2 hour or more before the bags appeared, which seems a bit much for 10-15 bags that had arrived when we did.
Getting back on the plane for the late flight the next day was a different story than flying out of Watertown.
Returning to the terminal to get boarding passes, we presented our TSA letters to have the pre-check added to our boarding passes. The gal at the Great Lakes Aviation desk told us “Just show those to the man at the TSA you’ll be fine.” Well, we weren’t, as the helpful TSA pre-check guy told us “They have to be on the boarding pass, and Great Lakes doesn’t have that.”
Wait, what? So, someone was telling us a story, and I don’t think it was the TSA guy. He was quite direct that Great Lakes doesn’t have that on their boarding passes, which provides the golden ticket for not having to remove your shoes & belt, among other requirements.
Being given direct misinformation at the Great Lakes desk was probably the single biggest annoyance that we experienced. Either they offer the ability to put that code on boarding passes, or they don’t. If there was something that we should have done differently, even that’s an acceptable answer. But for a ticketing agent to tell travelers something that’s grossly incorrect, that’s a bad thing.
Once through the TSA lines, we were back to the terminal in the no-amenity zone, where noting about our flight was displayed on the board. So, we waited for our 5:30 flight. And we waited. About 5:10-5:15, I got up to look at the board above the desk, and still nothing.
Literally one minute later, over the loudspeaker, we heard “FLIGHT 217 TO PIERRE IS BOARDING NOW” abruptly called, triggering my wife and I to quickly get in line, where they had us walking out the door to the plane. It was like it was a mystery flight that suddenly appeared to whisk us away into the sky.
The plane trip back seemed even faster than the one that brought us to Denver, even with a refueling in Pierre. I took this picture of our Capital City as we came around to land. The trip back to Watertown was so fast, they didn’t even bother to throw water at us. I swear we spent more time on the tarmack in Denver waiting to take off than the length of the flight between Pierre and Watertown. It was darned quick. And disembarking back in Watertown, our luggage beat us to the terminal.
So, how would I consider the quality of the flight experience? I’d give it about a 6.5, or possibly a 7 on a scale of 1-10. The flight was outstanding. The Watertown terminal portion was good. The Denver terminal portion seemed scattered and disorganized. Costs were good, and the first two bags for us were free. We only brought 1, so it was an even better bargain. I’d consider gate checking them next time, as those that did had them right away, as opposed to us who had to wait forever.
Would I consider using them again for a quick trip to Denver? If it’s cheaper than Frontier, which I’m told also has reasonable flights between Sioux Falls and Denver, I think I would, even forewarned that I’m stuck going through the massively long TSA line. As long as they’re running a nimble, and lightning quick jet. There were a lot of Great Lakes Aviation branded turbo prop planes at the Denver airport by our terminal.
So, that’s the view from above on the new ADI/Great Lakes flights between Watertown and Denver; a little bit good, a little bit bad. But, even knowing what I’m in for, I may be willing to climb back on the horse again.