Three regional airlines will fill the service void left in 12 small and medium-size communities in six states by the March 9 closure of Smyrna, Tenn.-based Regions-Air. Great Lakes Aviation has emerged as the big winner of the trio, drawing half the cities in a new contract with American Airlines that calls for the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based regional to fly from St. Louis to Marion, Quincy, Decatur and Springfield, Ill.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and Burlington, Iowa. All but Springfield involve EAS subsidies.
Fellow Beech 1900 operator Big Sky Airlines split the remaining six former RegionsAir cities with Pinnacle Airlines subsidiary Colgan Air. Manassas, Va.-based Colgan on May 1 began flying from Pittsburgh to Clarksburg/Fairmont, Morgantown and Parkersburg, W.Va., with Saab 340s, after winning an EAS bid in February to replace RegionsAir Continental Connection service from Cleveland. Billings, Mont.-based Big Sky, the chief beneficiary of Delta Air Lines’ recent moves to expand regional service to upstate New York and the surrounding region from Boston, will see its Delta Connection deal expand again with EAS service from Cincinnati to Jackson, Tenn.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; and Owensboro, Ky., starting June 1.
No Service Since March 9
RegionsAir had to suspend all its service indefinitely on March 9 after the FAA for the second time in one week halted operations for inadequacies in its line check airman and certification program. The action affected all 12 of RegionsAir’s routes, nine of which it flew with Jetstream 32s as an American Connection affiliate from St. Louis and the remaining three as a Continental Connection partner from Cleveland.
While Colgan Air got the customary 90 days to prepare to begin its service May 1, Great Lakes’ contract originally didn’t call for it to begin until the first of July.
However, pressure from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and the communities left without services since March 9 prompted Great Lakes to arrange for temporary service with RegionsAir Jetstream 31s–the very fleet the FAA grounded–until it could get its own Beech 1900Ds painted in American Connection livery and ready to fly.
Ironically, it was Durbin who launched the campaign in late February to replace RegionsAir service in the three central Illinois EAS cities. Over the following two weeks the FAA twice pulled Regions-Air’s flying certificate, and from March 9 until the time AIN went to press last month the airline hadn’t operated a single revenue flight.
An FAA spokesman wouldn’t go into fine detail about the reason for the grounding, but he indicated that the Nashville FSDO first recognized a problem with training manuals for its flight instructors during a routine records check on or near the date of the initial shutdown, on March 2. After RegionsAir resumed service on March 5, he said, the FAA’s Atlanta district office deemed the changes made to the manuals inappropriate and forced the airline to sign a consent order to fix the problem within 180 days or risk losing its certificate altogether.
Whether Durbin’s efforts led to the sudden scrutiny by the FAA remains unclear, but the timing raised questions about what role political pressure played in the closure.
Founded in 1996 as Corporate Express Airlines, RegionsAir used the manuals in question for six years–and for the two-and-a-half years after the crash of one of its Jetstream 31s in Kirksville, Mo., in which 13 people died and for which the NTSB laid the blame squarely on the pilots’ unprofessional behavior and fatigue.
During the third week of February Durbin met with American Airlines executives in Dallas to discuss alternatives to RegionsAir. A week later he sent letters to DOT Secretary Mary Peters, American Eagle president Peter Bowler and the mayors of the cities in question to voice concern about its on-time and completion record. DOT statistics for November, December and January showed that RegionsAir canceled 15.6 percent, 27 percent, and 15.5 percent of its flights in those respective months.
“RegionsAir cannot provide even the most basic air service, let alone the reliable service our downstate communities deserve,” said Durbin.