Consultant: Commuter air service days over
By Russ Corey
An aviation industry consultant that spent three years trying to lure a commuter airline to Tuscaloosa said the days of airlines such as Delta Connection serving the Shoals are over, a victim of increasing costs and downsizing in the airline industry.
Mike Boyd, president of The Boyd Group International, of Evergreen, Colo., said despite the state’s ability to attract new business, the air transportation system is no longer financially capable of serving as many people as it did in the past.
He said Shoals travelers will have to get accustomed to smaller airlines such as the two that recently submitted proposals for the Shoals’ Essential Air Service (EAS) contract, or face driving to airports in Huntsville, Birmingham, Memphis or Nashville.
The only two airlines interested in providing air service to the Shoals under the EAS subsidy were Air Choice One and SeaPort Airlines, both of which propose flights aboard eight-seat, single-engine, non-pressurized Cessna Caravan aircraft.
Those contracts were rejected by local officials who have asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a new request for air service proposals.
Shoals Chamber of Commerce President Steve Holt, a staunch supporter of local air service, is adamant about educating the public about local air service, which is currently available through Delta Connection.
The airline is operating regional jet service to Atlanta. It has notified the Department of Transportation, however, that it wants to leave the Shoals as well as more than 20 other communities around the country.
“We are still waiting to hear from the DOT of their final decisions, but until another carrier is selected, Delta will continue to serve the community of Muscle Shoals,” Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur said.
Holt said the Shoals has the capability of boarding 20,000 or more passengers a year. He said the availability of commercial air service sets the Shoals apart from communities that are not served by a commercial airline.
“It’s one of those economic development tools that keeps us a little better and little different from everybody else,” Holt said.
Holt and Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford want to increase the number of passengers on the regional jet in hopes that Delta or Pinnacle Airlines, which operates as Delta Connection, will remain in the Shoals.
Bradford said the Shoals needs time to market the larger plane and show Delta the service can be viable.
But with only two airlines interested in operating, both with the same eight-seat Cessna aircraft, and Delta adamant about leaving the area, the prospect of major changes in air service looms.
“When you get down to the level of the eight-seat Caravan, you don’t have air service anymore, you have airplanes going in and out,” Boyd said. “As good as those operators are, people coming from New York and Chicago won’t do it. You might have to come to the conclusion that your new airport might be Huntsville.”
Bradford also expressed doubts that Shoals’ passengers would support air service on a smaller aircraft.
“It would be like having nothing,” Bradford said.
For Air Choice One or SeaPort to operate in the Shoals, the community would have to waive the EAS requirement for a twin-engine, 15-passenger aircraft. But Bradford said he informed the U.S. Department of Transportation that Muscle Shoals would not waive the requirement.
Barry Griffith, Northwest Alabama Regional Airport director, said the U.S. House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement that would provide $193 million in funding for EAS, which is $43 million more than the $150 million proposed by the House.
The measure would repeal a requirement for the use of 15-seat aircraft.
“I am one who will fight to keep what we have as long as we can, but the future may mean small aircraft for EAS markets,” Griffith said.
Wayne Cameron, manager of the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, said the airport lost its commercial carrier in 1997.
“There’s been attempts to get it back,” he said. “But you know the condition airlines have been in the last few years. Most are shrinking instead of expanding. Airlines keep crying that they’re going under.”
Tuscaloosa received a Small Community Air Service grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to help lure an airline to the city, which is the home of the University of Alabama and a Mercedes plant in nearby Vance.
The city hired the Boyd Group to help them but after three years they were unable to find an interested air service provider. One of the problems is the interstate that connects Tuscaloosa to Birmingham.
Cameron said the airport survives as a general aviation facility, but keeps its FAA commercial airport certification current in hopes of one day landing a new airline.
“The airlines have put small communities between a rock and a hard place,” Cameron said.
Boyd said the Shoals is in a similar situation with its proximity to Huntsville International Airport.
Holt agrees the public is reluctant to fly on a single-engine aircraft.
“The pilots may like it, but the flying public, the business traveler or family, would have a different opinion,” Holt said.
Mary Beaird, director of the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport, said after being without air service for five months, Burlington, Ia., residents were glad to see a replacement airline arrive, even if it was an eight-passenger craft.
The small airport between Des Moines and Cedar Rapids had been served by Great Lakes Airlines, which operated flights with a 19-seat Beechcraft, Beaird said.
In January, it will be two years that Burlington has been served by Air Choice One, which operates daily commercial air service to airports in St. Louis and Chicago with the Cessna Caravan.
Beaird said it wasn’t an easy transition from a 19-seat aircraft to the eight-passenger aircraft. Beard said Burlington sought a waiver to allow Air Choice One to operate in their community.
“Our community was not that excited about dropping to that eight- or nine-seat aircraft,” Beard said. “We got people familiar with the aircraft. That really helped.”
Joe Attwood, director of the Decatur Airport in Decatur, Ill., said there were similar concerns in his community when it was forced to downsize to the smaller Cessna Caravan. Immediate concerns were the lack of restroom facilities and Cessna’s single engine.
Prior to Air Choice One, Decatur was served by a 19-seat aircraft operated by Mesa Airlines, Attwood said.
Attwood said the transition to a smaller aircraft was not that difficult because the community was so disenchanted with the previous carrier.
“They didn’t care if there was air service or not,” he said.
Flights from Decatur go to either St. Louis or Chicago.
Bradford said he’s spoken to people who are utilizing local air service since the arrival of the regional jet.
“They said they were using the airport in the Shoals because it’s much more convenient because of the Atlanta connection and the larger plane,” Bradford said.
Bradford said he believes the Shoals needs to be served by a plane larger than eight passengers, even if there would be six flights a day to Atlanta.
Subsidized commercial air service in the Shoals has been in a state of flux since Delta Air Lines announced it was not going to seek the EAS subsidy for another two years. The airline is required to continue providing service until a suitable replacement is found.
The Shoals was being served by Delta Connection’s 33-seat Saab twin turboprop aircraft, first to Memphis, then to Atlanta beginning in July 2009. Flights shifted back to Memphis earlier this year, then abruptly back to Atlanta on Nov. 1.
When Pinnacle Airlines retired the Saab aircraft, the airline began providing service with the 50-seat regional jet.
Boardings at the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport plummeted when flights shifted back to Memphis after doubling in some months when Delta flew to Atlanta. Airport officials cited frustration among travelers who did not know what airline or what type of aircraft they might be flying on if they booked flights months in advance.
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