Western Nebraska Regional Airport officials are pouring more resources into persuading Panhandle travelers to board planes in Scottsbluff rather than drive to Denver to catch flights.
The airport has increased advertising and plans to hire a travel agent whose main responsibility will be to book flights out of Scottsbluff.
"Our goal is to try and find the best rates for people to fly out of Scottsbluff," airport manager Darwin Skelton said. "We do have a large leakage of people who drive to Denver, and we need to figure out how to stop that."
The airport needs to keep passenger numbers up to qualify for federal funds for safety improvements. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Western Nebraska Regional boardings dipped from a high of 13,000 annually.
A minimum of 10,000 boardings are required for an airport to qualify for $1 million in federal funds for safety improvements. Western Nebraska Regional has achieved that mark the last few years, but officials say to keep passenger numbers up, flying out of Scottsbluff rather than Denver needs to be regarded as the more attractive option.
Great Lakes Airlines has three daily departures to Denver Sunday through Friday and one on Saturday.
Skelton said many people don't want to pay the additional cost of flying out of Scottsbluff. On Sunday, air fare was $79 each way with two weeks' advance booking and $59 each way with 30 days' advance booking.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, people tell me it's the price; the other percent comes from people who don't like to fly on small planes," Skelton said.
Skelton said the savings in time and other costs associated with driving to Denver can offset the higher air fare. He said a person flying out of Denver at 10 a.m. would need to leave Scottsbluff by 4:30 a.m. in order to find a parking spot, get to the airport and pass through security.
"And that's if you don't have any problems like a flat tire or run into any traffic problems," Skelton said.
For some, Skelton said, a flight out of Denver might require an overnight stay in the Mile High City, adding costs for lodging and meals.