4 airlines face off to win airport contract

Photo by Jacob Mulliken, Messenger-Inquirer/jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport Director Rob Barnett addresses community members at a public hearing on Tuesday. The hearing, held on the third floor of Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, centered around four airlines: Air Choice One, Boutique Air, Cape Air and Southern Airways making presentations as to why they should be awarded the airport's Essential Air Services contract granted through the Department of Transportation. The airport's board will meet on Tuesday, July 9, to make their recommendation. Their recommendation is due to the department on July 17.

Local officials and community members sat in attendance on Tuesday to scrutinize four air service providers' presentations to be considered for Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport's Essential Air Service (EAS) contract.

EAS is a U.S. Department of Transportation program that guarantees that small communities in the United States that were served prior to The Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. The DOT is mandated to provide eligible EAS communities with access to the National Air Transportation System.

This is generally accomplished by subsidizing two round trips a day with 30- to 50-seat aircraft, or additional frequencies with aircraft with nine-seat or fewer, usually to a large- or medium-hub airports. Currently, the DOT subsidizes commuter or certificated air carriers in 60 communities in Alaska and 115 communities in the lower 48 contiguous states.

Four airlines -- Air Choice One, Boutique Air, Cape Air and Southern Airways -- gave their proposals on the third floor of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, 200 E. Third St. They were each given 25 minutes, with time for community input, to state their case on why they should pilot Owensboro's aviation future.

Each airline touted their records in regards to access to larger hubs, partnerships with larger airlines, customer amenities, marketing strategies as well as their respective histories in aiding smaller markets, like Owensboro, in achieving growth. While all of these things caught the attention of those in attendance, the audience's focus rested on four major aspects -- price and destination, destination and destination.

Chris Toler, lives in Owensboro and travels a couple of days a week for work. To him, having a choice in airline service is paramount.

"We utilize the Cape Air, St. Louis flight a couple of days a week," he said. "A larger hub would actually give access to a lot more destinations than single-direct flights, and you can get anywhere from Chicago or Atlanta."

While the prospect of flights going to Nashville, Atalanta and Chicago certainly wet the whistles of many in attendance, members of the airport board were excited by the difficulty of making their recommendations to the DOT, said Ed Riney, airport board chair.

"I like the fact that Air Choice One has a larger plane," he said. "I also like the fact that Cape Air is getting new airplanes. We are extremely lucky to have had them for the past eight years. I will tell you I was impressed with Boutique Air's presentation and their aircraft and how fast they are. The fact that, regardless of where we go, we are going to get more destinations than just St. Louis excites me a lot because Atlanta is big, Chicago is big, but Nashville, at the prices that have been proposed, is strong, too. I think we are in the catbird seat here. I think the board has a tough decision to make in recommending who we are going to go with, but we are fortunate to have this many proposals. In the past, there have been times where we have only had one bidding."

Owensboro City Commissioner Pamela Smith-Wright was in attendance. She saw the opportunity of potentially new and larger markets as a boon for a growing city, she said.

"I think this decision is very important," she said. "As our city grows, our airport needs to grow where it can serve more people. I think it is very important because as our city grows, our airport needs to grow where it can serve more people. People travel, so we need to have a place that they can go through in our own community and not have to go somewhere else. My husband and I were talking about it this morning, and he asked me, 'What do you think?' I told him, 'I think Chicago.' You know you can drive to St. Louis and it's no big deal, but if you need to catch a connection in Chicago, it is different."

The contending airlines:

Air Choice One was established and incubated as a "next generation" scheduled commuter airline by Multi-Aero Inc., a St. Louis-based aviation company, according to its website, and will be presenting three travel options.

Option 1 provides 21 total round-trip flights per week with 14 flights to Chicago O'Hare International Airport on a Beechcraft 1900C, 19 passenger aircraft, and seven to St. Louis Lambert International Airport on a Cessna Grand Caravan, nine-passenger aircraft. Average fares to O'Hare will be $159 and fares to St. Louis will be $69. Option 2 consists of 21 round-trip flights per week to O'Hare on a Beechcraft 1900C, 19 passenger aircraft. Average fares to Chicago will be $159. The third and final proposed option also consists of 21 round trips per week, with 13 going to O'Hare and eight traveling to the Nashville International Airport. The Beechcraft 1900C, 19 passenger aircraft will be used for both destinations with average fares to O'Hare running $159 and fares to Nashville running $79.

Boutique Air, headquartered in San Francisco, California, has been in operation since 2007 and began by flying fire surveillance missions for the U.S. Forestry Service and Bureau of Land Management. It will be presenting five options for a proposed two-year term. All flights will take place on Pilatus PC-12, an eight- to nine-passenger aircraft. The airline launched its interline agreement with United Airlines in May 2017 and its codeshare agreement in 2018. It also joined into an interline agreement with American Airlines in December 2018. The airline will be presenting five travel options.

Option 1 provides 21 total weekly round-trip flights to St. Louis with average fares running $88. Option 2 consists of 21 total weekly round-trip flights with 14 flights to St. Louis and eight flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Average fares for option 2 are $105. Option 3 will provide 21 round-trip flights to Nashville with an average fare of $52. Option 4 will provide 21 weekly round trip flights with 14 flights to Nashville and eight to Atlanta. Average fares for option 4 are $76. The fifth and final option will provide 21 weekly round-trip flights to Chicago O'Hare with an average fare of $113.

Cape Air has been in operation since 1989 and Owensboro's EAS provider since 2011. Currently, Cape Air operates a fleet of 88 Cessna 402s and four Britten-Norman Islanders aircraft, with up to 400 flights per day during high season. Last year Cape Air carried more than 500,000 passengers, 10,557 of which flew out of Owensboro. They codeshare with American Airlines and partner with JetBlue, Delta, QATAR, United and Alaska airlines. They will be presenting three travel options that include the use of their new twin-engine Tecnam P2012 Travellers, nine-passenger aircraft.

Option 1 consists of three daily round-trip flights to St. Louis with an average fare of $38, option 2 consists of two daily flights to St. Louis and one daily flight to Nashville with an average rate to both destinations of $38. Option 3 consists of one daily flight to St. Louis and two daily flights to Nashville with an average rate to both destinations of $38.

Southern Airways has been in operation since 2013 and began when Delta Air Lines de-hubbed Memphis, Tennessee. In spring 2018, Southern Airways became an interline partner of American Airlines and also partners with Alaska, Condor and Air New Zealand airlines. It will be presenting three options using its Beechcraft 1900C, 19 passenger aircraft to Chicago O'Hare and its nine-passenger turboprop Cessna Caravan aircraft to St. Louis.

Option 1 provides 21 total weekly round-trip flights to St. Louis with average fares running $55, while option 2 provides 19 weekly round-trip flights with 12 flights to St. Louis and seven to Chicago O'Hare with average fares to both destinations of $77. Option 3 provides 18 total weekly round-trip flights with 12 flights to St. Louis and six to O'Hare with average fares to both destinations of $75.

The airport board will be meeting on Tuesday, July 9, after having a week to ponder the presentations and consider community input, to discuss and make their recommendations to the DOT. Their recommendation is due to the department on July 17.

Jacob Mulliken, 270-228-2837, jmulliken@messenger-inquirer.com

(2) comments

rob ebelhar

I've flown all four, Boutique is the best of this bunch.

GORDON FITZGERALD

For those of us that travel regularly and have tickets on Cape Air connecting with other airlines in St Louis, what happens to us if the carrier and or service changes? Do we then have to drive to St. Louis and park to catch our flights? If the airport can cancel our flights and totally disgrace our schedule, why should we ever trust them in the future with our travel arrangements? I understand the need to seek out and find new alternatives for air service. If Owensboro wanted to do this, why no advisory warning travelers not to book connecting flights on Cape Air past a certain date to alleviate this problem. Total incompetence on the part of the new airport manager. Customer service is certainly not his forte.

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