County board on track in tackling airport’s problems

With several recent developments, the operation of the Upper Peninsula’s largest airport at K.I. Sawyer will likely become an increasingly highly-prominent issue throughout the area in the coming months.

In 2012, ridership at Sawyer International Airport dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade at just over 76,000. And while American and Delta airlines have both added flights to Sawyer’s schedule -which is expected to boost passenger numbers this year- the Federal Aviation Administration announced recently it would close 149 airport air traffic control towers across the country, including Sawyer’s. And while flights will continue at the airport, Sawyer airport manager Duane DuRay said that move will likey produce a negative effect on the future marketability of the airport.

Meanwhile, a 2012 law aimed at limiting the number of airports receiving federal subsidies blocks Sawyer out of future consideration for help, should one or both of the air carriers servicing the airport discontinue flights.

The other five U.P. airports receive an essential air service subsidy from the federal government, which is provided to air carriers in hopes of providing and retaining air service at smaller airports. Sawyer was not eligible for a subsidy prior to 2012 because it had two airlines, while the other U.P. airports each have one air carrier.

Those airports not with a subsidy when the 2012 law was passed were blocked from applying for financial subsidy assistance in the future.

Meanwhile, with fewer people flying, increased operational costs and a declining revenue stream, county officials see challenges in funding the airport.

“We need to make sure we’re not drawing our general funds any more than necessary to make that a viable operation,” Commissioner Greg Seppanen said. “It’s going to be our test to see if we can make that viable.”

Commissioner Steven Pence said K.I. Sawyer will continue to be important among the county’s priority issues.

“I think K.I. Sawyer has to be a huge priority, both the people living there and also the new problems that have emerged with our airport with losing our tower and I think we’ve done a good job lately in increasing some flights, which I think is helpful,” Pence said.

We’re glad the board has been looking toward the challenges presented by Sawyer for some time now. We hope thoughtful plans will emerge -with input from the public and a focus on keeping fees and ticket prices low- and that the news on the future of this vitally important county asset will improve in the days and weeks ahead.