Lincoln Gets Creative Out of Desperation with New Red Way Service


Spring break! I’m off next week, and while I usually try and pre-write posts when I’m gone, I’ve decided to stop trying to kill myself in that effort and instead just go dark.

After tomorrow’s Cranky Weekly Review, there will be no post until next Friday’s Cranky Weekly Review. I’ll be back either the following Monday or Tuesday depending upon how much time I have to write.

Like many smaller cities, Lincoln (Nebraska) has had a rough go when it comes to air service. Back in 2005 it had more than 300,000 departing seats on two airlines with a third arriving in 2006. This year, it’ll be lucky to clear 130,000 seats on one, lonely airline. For that reason, the local government is ponying up the cash for a big revenue guarantee to bring in a new public charter operation. The chances of this being an unqualified money-maker are low, but faced with limited options, Lincoln Airport (LNK) decided this was worth the risk.

The decline of air service at LNK mirrors the plight of many small cities around the country. Just look at this depressing chart.

Lincoln Departing Seats by Month and Destination

In 2005, United was in the market with service to Chicago and Denver while Northwest had flights to all three of its hubs in Detroit, Memphis, and Minneapolis/St Paul. After the merger, Delta would keep service to both MSP and Detroit while trying Atlanta and Salt Lake at various times.

In 2006, Allegiant came into the market from Las Vegas, but that only last three years before ending. By 2010, service levels had plunged, and Lincoln would stay relatively flat until the pandemic and the pilot shortage that came with it.

Delta’s last flight was in January 2022, leaving only United in the market. This summer’s current plan is for 1x daily to Houston/IAH, 2x daily to Chicago/O’Hare, and 3x daily to Denver. Except for 2x daily to Chicago on Embraer 175s, all other flights are on 50-seat regionals.

And that Houston flight? That’s being funded by a $750,000 grant from the feds along with $500,000 in local matching funds. Keep that number in mind, because this is one reason why LNK decided to get behind this Red Way plan.

I spoke with both David Haring, Executive Director at LNK, and Rachel Barth, Director of Communications and Customer Engagement, about this plan as well as Nickolas Wangler and Sarah Riches who are behind Fly Next LLC, the newly-formed company putting this all together. You know, maybe a chart will help show how this works, and frankly, I’m not sure this is even fully right.

LNK has spent years trying to boost local service levels, but that’s been almost impossible as of late. Part of Lincoln’s problem is out of its control, knowing that there is a pilot shortage that is wreaking havoc on regional operations. This is what ultimately pushed Delta to leave the market. But part of this is also that Lincoln is not a big place, and it is far too close to Omaha.

Yes, the Omaha airport is on the far northeast side of that city, as far as possible from Lincoln to the southwest. But it’s still only 60 miles… and an hour drive. When options are that close to each other, airlines can prioritize putting airplanes elsewhere. And they have.

The city of Lincoln, Lancaster County, and of course the airport do not like any of this. In fact, flush with cash from COVID relief, the county has dedicated $3 million to the pursuit of more air service. LNK has taken that money and offered it as a revenue guarantee to Fly Next LLC, a company which was formed by Nick solely to build out this plan.

Apparently David and Nick have known each other for a long time. Nick was involved with Allegiant in the early years, but today he consults with 10 other airline clients around the planet helping with these types of arrangements and run their commercial functions. He says some of his biggest clients are 737 operators, so this isn’t a big leap for him operationally. The only thing that’s different is that Nick usually operates in the background. This time, he’s in charge of building a brand. That’s where Sarah comes in.

When LNK started putting this together, the airport did some math. It had already put over $1.2 million into just getting that Houston route, and while it’s appreciated, it’s still the same high fare, hub-focused service they already have from United. Lincoln is a college town, and many students have a hard time paying legacy carrier monopoly fares, so they just drive to Omaha.

In this new plan, LNK is able to commit just a little more than double that amount in revenue guarantees, but Nick says the “model that we’ve built out says we shouldn’t have to touch that money.” (As all models do….) LNK, however, will get flights all over the country to the places where it wants to go, and that’s how the plan for Red Way was hatched. To start, those airplanes will go to, well…

Service starts in June, and flights will not operate daily. The plan is:

  • Atlanta – 2x weekly, rising to 3x weekly after Labor Day
  • Austin – 2x weekly through Labor Day, then suspended for season
  • Dallas/Fort Worth – 2x weekly, rising to 3x weekly after Labor Day
  • Las Vegas – 2x weekly
  • Minneapolis/St Paul – 2x weekly, rising to 3x weekly after Labor Day
  • Nashville – 2x weekly through Labor Day, then suspended for season
  • Orlando – 2x weekly

With 28x weekly flights to start, this is going to have to sink or swim pretty quickly. LNK’s contract with Fly Next will allow the company to dip into the revenue guarantee funds to cover any shortfall for up to $30,000 per flight domestically. With $0 in revenue, this would burn through the funds in a month. Obviously this needs to get traction relatively quickly or the money runs out. Either party can get out of the contract with 30 days notice, so there is nothing set in stone here. It’s one big experiment.

The infrequent service to multiple markets is certainly designed more for the leisure focus, so it is different than anything LNK has seen in a long time. What’s interesting to me, however, is that while LNK can make suggestions on where it would like to see flights operate, it’s Fly Next that has complete control of the network and revenue management functions. Fly Next has said it is focusing on building a network that will “fly to the peak markets at the peak time of the year.” That’s why you see a shift in which markets are served after Labor Day.

We don’t have much to look at yet, but Nick explained that he’s built out a model for how every day needs to look until launch and the first four days of sales exceeded that. Of course, once the buzz dies off, that’s when it gets tougher, but Sarah is bullish. They’re particularly excited at the idea that unlike Allegiant, they only need to focus on the LNK market and not all the different spokes. This is going to sink or swim based on demand in Lincoln. To help with that cause, they have $225,000 in marketing funds from airport, which are available to any new entrant (it’s actually $75,000 per new route with a cap).

Nick thinks that this is the model that will be a “catalyst” for others to do the same. I remain highly skeptical that it’ll work, but since I have nothing at stake here personally, I like to see others testing the waters.

I asked David if he would consider it a success if this new airline failed, but it proved the opportunity enough for Delta to come back to the market. He thought about that for awhile and ultimately decided no, it would not be a success. He sees a real need for that low-cost leisure service that tends to appeal to a penny-pinching college crowd. While he’d love to see Delta return, he has bigger ambitions.

In the end, I got the feeling that there was a mix of desperation and exasperation here. Small airports have almost no ability to move the needle on air service these days thanks to the pilot shortage and a variety of other issues that have shrunk regional flying in this country dramatically. LNK wanted to do something to try and change its situation, and it has done that. Now, we wait.

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49 comments on “Lincoln Gets Creative Out of Desperation with New Red Way Service

  1. I’m sympathetic to small towns like Lincoln that are losing air service, but this type of thing is happening all over the country, and will continue to happen as the turboprops and RJs become less economical to operate.

    I’m not a local, but perhaps the better option in terms of service & connectivity for the Lincoln area would have been to arrange for a bus service to make a half dozen round trips between LNK and Omaha (or even LNK & Kansas City, as MCI is < 3 hours away). That would be easy to flex up and down with demand (college towns see very huge demand spikes around game days, breaks, etc), and the university probably already has students driving their buses (if not, students could easily be trained over a summer), so I don't imagine that the driver labor pool would be much of an issue. Parking is presumably readily available & cheap at LNK.

    If one wanted to get fancy, the bus could even be a "sealed bus" arrangement that would pick up pax after they'd passed through security at LNK.

    1. I thought of the bus service idea as I read your comment & then you mentioned it being sealed like “Landline.”. Perhaps that will be the future of these small airports that may no longer be as viable as they once were.

      The real issue as Roger Murdoch put it “the latest weather report shows that everything is socked in from Salt Lake to Lincoln.”

      1. I think bus/shuttle service to larger airports is really where these areas are heading for public transportation, whether done privately with airport shuttle companies or through more formal/coordinated bus services like Landline.

        For example, Groome Transportation (no affiliation, though I have used their services before) offers 31 roundtrips daily from Athens, GA (home of UGa) to ATL, up to 26 from Chattanooga, and up to 38 from Columbus, plus up to 6 RTs daily from Cheyenne to Denver. It’s still not ideal, but better than nothing.

        1. Why would they use buses when they’re apparently sitting on millions of “COVID relief” dollars that can be used to fund a grand new airline venture? And when “Red Way” fails and they run out of money, I’m sure the usual suspects in the government will come up a new plan to buy votes, er I mean help out poor Lincoln.

          That’s how crony capitalism works.

  2. Is there any past success stories of a small-mid size city revenue guarantee helped to start a new flight (let alone new airline)? I assume some consultants are paid to show this is viable and I am curious to see their powerpoint slides.
    On another note, how are other college town airports doing? PUW to GEG is about 90 min drive. It seems like PUW has no problem maintaining its AS flights to SEA.

    1. Wany – Few and far between, but yes! Santa Rosa was a success after getting the federal SCASD grants to bring service in.

    2. AS does have a 6x weekly from PUW to BOI subsidized by University of Idaho. Perhaps Lincoln should tap into the university there for subsidy as well.

    3. Bozeman, MT used government funding (SCASD grant) and local funding to get United to start seasonal service to Newark in 2012, and now it flies seasonally unsubsidized. These things can work. But need to be targeted.

  3. 1) They are paying to set up an Allegiant when Allegiant itself decided it didn’t work. Bad idea. Allegiant is very good at what it does.

    2) I do NOT feel sorry for “cities” that are one hour from a real airport that have trouble landing their own service. There are people in Dallas, Houston and NY who are an hour or more from an airport. Because of pilot scarcity and carbon impact, it’s completely superfluous and wasteful.

    They ought to just have a party and incinerate that money on the town square. At least that would have much less of a carbon footprint.

    1. Here here! Totally agree with you here. I would imagine airlines would support such creative rail and bus connections because it would help them fortify flights in the viable airports.

      I’m still not convinced this isn’t a continuation of the April fools joke from last week lol.

      1. My thoughts exactly. If not an April Fool’s, there are certainly plenty of fools involved in this venture.

    2. > They are paying to set up an Allegiant when Allegiant itself decided it didn’t work.
      > Bad idea. Allegiant is very good at what it does.

      Allegiant may have found better opportunities to use their limited resources. That doesn5 automatically mean that someone else shouldn’t do a similar thing. Obviously LNK has very different priorities and needs than Allegiant.

      That said, I agree with your second point.

  4. A $750k federal grant? Those should be ended immediately. The states and cities can throw their money away but federal giveaways of this nature are ludicrous.

  5. This is a totally unproductive way to light government money on fire. An insane and inappropriate use of Covid funds.

    What Lincoln should do is support a high quality frequent airport shuttle service to the OMA airport. Maybe even make it a two-stop service so that it goes to downtown Omaha as well as OMA airport. If it’s reasonably priced and frequent that’s of way more value than infrequent charter flights on a random schedule. And if these charter flights suck passengers of the United flights, they will hurt UA service levels to boot.

    1. Regular shuttle service has already been in place from Lincoln to Omaha Eppley for many years (like 40). But, all told, the effect is that you’re still adding several hours to your trip from Lincoln and back (there are lots of factors that nobody here seems to be considering–it’s not really just 60 miles and an hour of travel, especially depending on where you work or live in Lincoln). The question isn’t getting from Lincoln to Omaha. The question is: Should the residents of a capital city of 300,000 people, with an immediate market area of 450,000 that continues to grow, and a very serviceable airport, have to put up with that inconvenience? It’s an annoyance, believe me. Red Way is a creative gamble. We’ll see how it pans out. But providing even 300 seats a week from Lincoln to the selected destinations is welcome. Ultimately, if this effort soldiers on, the MSP, DFW and ATL connections will be its bread and butter. I say, “Vive la Red Way!”

      1. “The MSP, DFW, ATL connections…” what connections? Red way won’t have any interline agreements with any other airlines. Unless someone wants to buy a one way ticket on red way to connect to a real airline, there won’t be any “connecting” traffic. I say the opposite. These three routes are the most likely to tank because local O&D is tiny and no connections to be had.

  6. Hope it works out, but this looks like the route map of a 90’s startup. Maybe they can get some old WinAir 737-300s!

  7. Seems like the same issue facing Baton Rouge and its proximity to New Orleans. Capital city and college town an hour from a major metro. Though BTR is larger and has managed to keep service from American Eagle (CLT, DCA, DFW), Delta Connection (ATL) and United Express (IAH). BTR is even getting mainline service to ATL on Delta though it is still much less service than you would expect for a city of its size due to nearby MSY.

    I’m thinking about taking the inaugural AUS-LNK flight but it’s a month after the airline starts flying, so who knows if it’ll still be around.

    1. A lot of college towns are 1-2 hours away from a decent sized airport, but many of the college towns still appear to do reasonably well economically.

      Michigan State (LAN vs DTW, though I’m somewhat surprised at the level of service that LAN gets), Wisconsin (MSN vs MKE), Georgia (AHN vs ATL), Mizzou, etc.

  8. Thanks so much for this article! I’m in Lincoln and can tell you that the local media (which sucks) has done no job of critically questioning this. They’ve taken the airport authority’s PR bait.

    This airline has NO chance of long-term success. This is nothing more than a money grab for the upstart and I even question whether there is some sort of illegal kickback for those involved. In a small city that can’t even support two major airlines, this upstart charter is going to somehow sell sporadically-offered flights to a small number of cities and without interlining with the majors? Keep dreaming, LNK. The authority needs to start thinking more creatively to lure back Delta or another carrier — or just accept the harsh reality of a regional airport.

  9. This and whatever the hell the financial details of the Breeze/CRW/State of WV deal are further proof that we need to ban public funds from aircraft route support in the lower 48 outside of a much narrower EAS program.

  10. Why is Grand Island able to recruit airlines? Lincoln will also need to step up other airport amenities. Cab service, food service, lower fares to get folks to take flights from Lincoln.

    1. Well, first, the American service at Grand Island is federally subsidized by the EAS program. The only other service is Allegiant, and I’m guessing that works because the drive to Omaha to more than twice as long as from Lincoln. So there’s less bleed.

  11. Because of politics always being in the news, this country is based on being blue or red, and they go with Red Way which sounds like they only want travelers of one political party and not the other.

    I’m sure my mind isn’t the only one that thought that, so it could hurt them. But maybe that’s what they want in the first place.

    1. Or it has to do with the fact that Lincoln is home to the University of Nebraska, whose nickname is ‘Big Red’, but nice try.

      1. Was just gonna say, this is all about University of Nebraska and will have immeediate appeal to everyone in Lincoln, I’d assume. There’s nothing wrong with the name when you only care about the LNK market.

  12. Any details on the schedule and fleet?

    With 28 flights per week with the longest (MCO) at about 1200 miles, it seems pretty clever to set it up as 2 round trips per day which means only one airplane is needed, if indeed that’s what they are doing. And if I had to guess they would get a used CRJ since there are so many extra ones now.

    Now whether or not passengers will like it is a different story.

    1. Looks like Global Crossing is an Airbus 319/320/321 operator, so I’d guess one of those. Probably the 320 since Global Crossing has six of those.

    2. Global Crossing Airlines, the operating airline, has a fleet of A320 and A321 with different configurations according to their website. They are selling Business, Premium Economy and Economy out of LNK. So I am guessing it will likely be those jets configured with all 3 type of seats. 1 A321 and 2 +1 A320 (the last one is a flexible configuration between 68 all J and 150 mixed). They even have WiFi on those A320s.

    3. I would think all the CRJ-100s and CRJ-200s are heading to the desert soon. The first one was built in 1991 and last one was built in 2006 and most are nearing the second or third ‘D’ check now. They also have very high CASM if you can even find pilots to fly them.

  13. If this actually comes to fruition, they’re gonna get crushed on the ATL, DFW & MSP routes if DL & AA decide to fly the same routes & return to Lincoln.

      1. They could drop their prices on any similarly timed OMA flights on those days to pull away passengers who would just go to Lincoln for the cheaper fares.

  14. If I were United, I’d probably be a bit annoyed. Six flights a day isn’t nothing. I’m sure if the profitability of those starts to falter UA would be happy to reallocate those airplanes elsewhere..

    If the airport had no, or next to no service, sure this’d make sense. But I’m with the others here, this seems like an inappropriate use of these funds.

    Honestly this seems like a bit money waster, and I’m with other folks here, what really should be happening is the university should be sponsoring bus service to Omaha. Its a good way to flex up and flex down around the very compressed travel schedule for college students.

  15. I personally hope that this succeeds for it could really be an alternative for smaller airports to simply run charters to connect for their customers.

    In response to the comment about small markets etc… Some communities bus transport is not entirely viable. Maybe their road access is bunk, or distance is prohibitive, whereas others to me doesn’t make a lot of sense when they are in close proximity to other airports.

    I think as a whole we are seeing a changing dynamic in the aviation industry, which is if your community can support service you will get service. However, if your community suffers from a lot of leakage to larger airports or a lack of community support than that airport will disappear from the service maps. I do hope that more airports will look to the Landline service and provide the “screened before travel” types of buses.

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