As firefighters shot off a water canon salute and area officials gathered at Utah's new St. George Municipal Airport on Tuesday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of SkyWest Airlines, company founder Ralph Atkin said it all seemed pretty far removed from what started in 1972 as a group of friends and a few six-seat passenger planes.
"Forty years ago, we couldn't have imagined anything like this," Atkin said, recalling when he purchased what was then called Dixie Airlines, planning to provide service to Salt Lake City.
Atkin joined other SkyWest officials and municipal leaders to mark the 40th anniversary of the first flight from St. George to Salt Lake City, which took off June 19, 1972.
It's been a long and unique journey for SkyWest, which faced some bumps and tough times along the way but on Tuesday hit the 40-year mark as one of the largest independent commuter airlines in the world.
SkyWest has 315 aircraft and more than 10,000 employees.
"Our small airline that began with three part-time pilots and four aircraft has become one-third of the nation's regional network, carrying one out of every 12 passengers who fly in the U.S. today," said Jerry Atkin, the company's chairman and CEO. "In its first year, SkyWest carried 256 passengers. Last year SkyWest Airlines carried 24.5 million."
Getting to this point wasn't always easy, Atkin said. At one point early on, it was $150,000 in debt and was in such poor shape owners literally couldn't give it away.
But with some common sense, good planning and a little luck, the company made it through and eventually started to expand, and Atkin said the hard work and dedication it took to get there is the key to the airline's future.
"I think that's a big part of the reason we've been so successful, because we have a very dedicated group of people who genuinely want to do things right," he said.
The company is one of the largest in St. George, employing nearly 600 people, and Mayor Daniel McArthur was on hand for the celebration to thank the company for sticking around when other major airlines might have moved to a larger city. Company spokespeople said the airline is the only one headquartered in such a small municipality.
"They could have moved and gone to any other place that was calling, saying, 'please bring here, have your company here,' but they chose to stay right here in St. George, in red rock country," McArthur said.
The Atkin family has a long history in the area, McArthur said, recalling that he grew up just down the street from Jerry Atkin, and he credited the unique partnership between the airline and city for the jet air service and new airport that area leaders have always wanted.
Now the city is recruiting other airlines to add to the city's transportation offerings, all with SkyWest's support.
"These are the kinds of partnerships that benefit everyone because it's not about me," he said.
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