Big Sky closure forces EAS shuffle

 - February 8, 2008, 6:42 AM

The fabric of the air transport security blanket known as the Essential Air Service (EAS) program has frayed once again with the January 7 contraction of Big Sky Airlines–the now former lone link to the nation’s air trans- portation system for Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Jackson, Tenn.; Owensboro, Ky.; and no fewer than five communities in upstate New York. The MAIR Holdings subsidiary this month plans to start “transitioning” the rest of its EAS network, based in Billings, Mont., to Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation, distribute any remaining cash to shareholders and completely liquidate later this year.

Big Sky’s withdrawal from its Eastern network, all of which it operated as a Delta Connection carrier, means the Department of Transportation must hold another EAS bid for the cities left without service. For some, that could mean months of waiting for a new carrier to survive the approval process, assemble the requisite crew and equipment and, finally, launch service.

The news held a familiar ring to the Midwestern communities that just recently underwent a rather rocky transition from one failed EAS provider to another. All three of the affected communities in Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky went much of last year without any air service after the FAA shut down Smyrna, Tenn.-based Regions- Air on March 9 for what it characterized as inadequacies in its line check airman and certification program. Although Big Sky won the bid to replace RegionsAir and promised to launch service June 1, it took seven months to recruit enough pilots and secure the airplanes to start service. When it finally did, spotty on-time and flight completion performance only heightened the frustration voiced by civic leaders, airport managers and passengers for the better part of a year.

Similar complaints came from the New York communities since Big Sky won EAS contracts in September for Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake. By that time the airline had already begun flying out of Boston as a Delta Connection carrier to Massena, Ogdensburg and Watertown, but its inability to start service to the three Midwest cities as promised had raised questions about the depth of its pilot, equipment and financial resources. Unfortunately for the towns in question, no other airline submitted a competing bid, leaving Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake with essentially no other choice to replace the outgoing CommutAir, which served its 90-day notice to end its service in June.

Now, after years of pining for jet service from the likes of JetBlue and settling for spotty service on Big Sky’s Beech 1900s, New York’s upstate EAS communities appear likely to face the prospect of either 19-seat Jetstream 31s flown by Boston-Maine Airways or nine-seat Cessna 402s flown by Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air. Last month Boston-Maine submitted the only bid for Watertown, Massena and Ogdensburg, and Cape Air issued the only proposal for Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh.

Boston-Maine has already encountered resistance from the cities on its wish list because it maintains no code-share relationship with a major airline and community leaders balked at its proposal to fly into Albany rather than Boston. Cape Air, meanwhile, brings with it the perceived disadvantage of very small airplanes.

For its part, Boston-Maine says it hopes to sign a code-share deal soon, and while Cape Air’s Cessnas might sound like a downgrade to some, all indications from Rutland, Vt.–where Cape Air recently started serving as a JetBlue code-share partner–point to an improvement in reliability and increased traffic since CommutAir served the market as a Continental Connection carrier.

Although EAS rules call for service on airplanes that carry at least 15 passengers, the DOT would waive that requirement if the communities in question endorse the use of smaller equipment. In fact, by late last month Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake each endorsed Cape Air’s service plan and the DOT approved the applications. As of January 17 Cape Air said it would likely start service within two or three weeks–a relatively short turnaround time compared with Great Lakes’ less lofty expectations for the eastern Montana routes, for example. 

Meanwhile, Big Sky’s plans to gradually go out of business heralded its withdrawal last month from Sheridan, Wyo.; Denver; Bozeman, Mont.; Boise, Idaho; and Portland, Ore. Great Lakes has promised only to serve Big Sky’s seven EAS cities in eastern Montana, meaning Helena, Great Falls and Missoula stand to lose service as well, although at press time Big Sky still served those destinations.

While the DOT’s emergency action to choose Great Lakes as Big Sky’s successor technically takes effect February 1, layoff notices to Big Sky’s 450 employees imply a March 8 termination date. Great Lakes said it plans to hire many of Big Sky’s employees. Nevertheless, a group of Big Sky pilots has launched a campaign to buy the airline from MAIR Holdings before Great Lakes gets a chance to take over the EAS routes. At press time the status of that effort hinged on financial and legal considerations, such as the likelihood of the DOT reversing its decision to transfer the EAS routes to Great Lakes.