Frustrated Natrona Commissioners Call $650K SkyWest Guarantee ‘Extortion”

A frustrated group of Natrona County commissioners said Tuesday that the $650,000 to guarantee a daily SkyWest flight to Salt Lake City is “extortion” and they’re not likely to renew it if the city and others don’t buy in.

Dale Killingbeck

March 20, 20245 min read

The subsidized SkyWest Delta connection at Casper/Natrona County Airport needed more than $1.3 million in 2023.
The subsidized SkyWest Delta connection at Casper/Natrona County Airport needed more than $1.3 million in 2023. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

CASPER — Saying they basically feel extorted into committing up to $650,000 to keep daily air service for six months, the Natrona County Board of Commissioners approved the payout Tuesday.

The money is a guarantee for SkyWest Airlines to continue with its direct flight from the Casper/Natrona County International Airport to connect with Delta Airlines in Salt Lake City. The guarantee covers air service from Jan. 1 through June 30, but it may be the last time the commissioners approve it.

They voted 4-1 Tuesday to extend the air guarantee. If SkyWest doesn’t sell enough seats to meet a minimum threshold, the fund pays out to make up the difference.

Committing to another six months also gives Fly Casper Alliance and other advocates for the flight time to convince the region’s other governments and businesses to become part of the financial equation to keep the flight, which is $1.3 million a year.

Commissioner Dave North was the lone dissenter and characterized the payment as “extortion.” But Commissioner Dallas Laird sounded more positive that at a work session earlier in the day where he indicated he would oppose it.

“I’ve been against this a couple of times, and I changed my mind after I talked to our airport board,” Laird said prior to the vote. “I would like to see the city pay 30% and the county pay 30%.”

Significant Hub

Commissioners heard input earlier in the day from Fly Casper Alliance Board Chair Kacy Wiita, who told the board that traffic going out of the airport includes passengers from other regions of the state like Buffalo, Sheridan, Douglas and Lander.

She said research shows it also is responsible for bringing in people from across the nation for business and recreation.

“Our airport is really a significant transportation hub for the entire state and for the entire country to get to Wyoming for recreation, business, family, whatever you need to get here for,” she said.

Wiita said work to involve the city of Casper and other communities to help cover the costs of the air guarantee is ongoing and she expected to see some progress by the end of April.

Commissioners made it clear that their patience with the airline and other governments in the region has run out. Both Laird and Commission Chairman Peter Nicolaysen indicated they likely would not vote to approve the payment again unless others benefiting from the program also buy into it.

Nicolaysen said he understood that SkyWest was at the mercy of Delta Airlines, which sets rates and imposed the “at-risk” contract that supplies the late-night flight from Salt Lake City and early morning flight back to the Delta hub.

“We all pay more for the Delta flight than the United flight (to Denver), and I hate that. SkyWest is in a bad position, but the county is in a bad position,” Nicolaysen said. “If we lose SkyWest and the Delta flight it will be way more difficult to bring in another carrier.”

Natrona County commissioners voted 4–1 on Tuesday to approve up to $650,700 to SkyWest airlines to continue its once-a-day connection to Delta Airlines in Salt Lake City.
Natrona County commissioners voted 4–1 on Tuesday to approve up to $650,700 to SkyWest airlines to continue its once-a-day connection to Delta Airlines in Salt Lake City. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)

Burden Sharing

Nicolaysen agreed with Laird that the city needs to pay half of what the county now is shouldering, but the county needed to act now to ensure the flight continues.

“I think that I have to support this, but I don’t see myself supporting this in the future,” he said.

Commissioner Steven Freel said the alternatives are few. He said it was important to understand that not only passengers in seats can reduce the payment, but cargo that can be sent out of the region can also reduce the cost to the county.

“If we end up losing one of these airlines, we are not going to get them back,” Freel said. “People complain about we’ve got to pay them, but I’ve listened to people complain about United Airlines and missing flights and being stuck in Denver.”

All commissioners, including North, agreed that having two airlines is important for the region in terms of development and having the infrastructure to support and attract new business and events to the state.

North characterized the SkyWest flight as unsustainable and pointed to the increasing costs as well as increased rates being charged. He said the county should use the money to recruit an airline that wants to do business in the region.

‘Basically Extortion’

“I can’t support his and I haven’t supported it since the first time. One flight in and one flight out a day is basically extortion, in my opinion,” North said. “I can think of a lot of things that I would rather have our taxpayer dollars go toward instead of supporting SkyWest and Delta.”

The $650,700 is the maximum payment the county would make under the agreement that requires it to pay 60% of the costs. The state pays the remaining 40% or $433,800.

The agreement basically ensures the airline will sell a minimum number of seats for the daily flight. If sales dip below that threshold, the guarantee kicks in to pay SkyWest the difference up to a little more than $1 million.

Wiita told the commission that March through the summer typically means higher passenger traffic on flights and the county may end up paying less.

Dale Killingbeck can be reached at

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Dale Killingbeck