As Congress takes a recess, RAP’s Parker rallies his troops

 - May 9, 2008, 5:30 AM

Regional Aviation Partners (RAP), the new Phoenix-based lobbying organization established by Mesa Air Group chairman Jonathan Ornstein as an advocate for small-community air service, has attracted its first new airline member and a pair of high-profile regional aircraft manufacturers in time for the start of the next congressional session this month. Led by Mesa board member and former National Mediation Board mediator Maurice Parker, RAP now counts Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation, Bombardier Regional Aircraft and Embraer among its ranks, lending further credibility to a group that has attracted more than 25 members since Ornstein dropped his airline’s membership in the Regional Airline Association (RAA) in April.

While Ornstein shows little restraint in his criticism of RAA, calling association officials “total political animals, more concerned with Washington cocktail parties than making a real difference,” Parker takes a diplomatic tack, preferring to stress cooperation with the better established group rather than animosity.

“RAA has been around a long time, and they’re a fine organization for the people they represent,” said Parker. “It’s just that [small communities] comprise a group that have been under-represented and this is certainly not a slap at the RAA…As a matter of fact, I talked with [RAA president] Deborah McElroy. We had a very nice and cordial conversation to the extent that maybe in the future, if we can find areas where we have mutual interests, we hope to work with them in any capacity we can.”

Of course, RAP’s interests lie mainly with those who stand to lose air service as a result of increased costs of flying 19- and 30-seat turboprops, while RAA’s scope covers the entire industry, from independent fliers of nine-seat “puddle jumpers” to mainline-owned regional-jet operators. To more effectively represent its members’ interests, RAP aims to cut through Washington bureaucracy with direct appeals to elected representatives in their own districts, according to Parker. In fact, regional airports account for most of RAP’s members, while more recent inquiries have come from chambers of commerce, business organizations and state aviation authorities.

Strong Ally in Virginia
One of RAP’s newest members, the Virginia Department of Aviation, stands to become one of the partnership’s strongest voices. Parker considers Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) RAP’s best ally in Washington, considering Virginia benefits from “one of the best organized and most widely supported” aviation programs in the country. Warner, a staunch advocate of AIR-21, last year secured $2 million in federal funds for a new ILS at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport and, more recently, $5.7 million for a new control tower at Richmond International Airport. Warner has also pledged to “assist in any way possible” in promoting aviation interests in small and medium-size communities.  

Parker agrees with the popular notion that deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 dealt the first major blow to small-community air service, despite the advent at the time of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. “Since deregulation, small-community air service has diminished at a fairly rapid rate,” he said. “With company consolidations, you’re seeing many of the majors that now own their regional carriers have cut service or completely abolished service to small cities that are simply not profitable. We don’t feel that was the spirit and scope of the EAS program, which came about as a result of deregulation. Even though these things work well in theory, if you don’t fund them they don’t work well in practice.”

Parker also pointed to the 1997 “One Level of Safety Rule,” which required all scheduled Part 135 airlines flying aircraft carrying more than nine seats to meet Part 121 requirements, as a “huge factor” in the loss of air service to small communities. The RAP director estimates that the Part 121 transition raised the cost of operating 19-seat Beech 1900 turboprops by 70 percent, due primarily to more training, administrative, maintenance and dispatch burdens. 

“In fact one level of safety is kind of like one size fits all, and it simply does not work,” he said bluntly. “My feeling is that no matter how well intentioned the FAA was, they simply rushed to address criticism from the NTSB and criticism from the press. But it was done so quickly that they didn’t take the time to look at the far-reaching implications. Now you have major airlines cutting back on service or eliminating service on these routes. Then, when you have fading EAS subsidies, and you have a lot more cities now competing for these subsidies, it’s getting more and more difficult to operate these airplanes at a profit or even at break-even.”

According to Ornstein, increasing funding for EAS subsidies lies at the heart of RAP’s efforts. Since 1978 EAS appropriations have held constant at $50 million per year, and lawmakers have tabled a recent amendment to add some $13 million to $15 million to the program budget. Meanwhile, no fewer than 48 communities have lost their subsidies since 1989, while another 18 stand to lose theirs if further appropriations do not materialize, according to RAP.

400 Airports Available
Still more communities have felt the effects of a more gradual loss of air service, to the point where businesses have begun considering moves to more accessible locales. Many fear a sagging economy will only hasten the resulting effect on those communities. “An economic downturn has a tendency to exponentially hurt smaller airlines and subsequently the communities they serve,” said Cheyenne (Wyo.) Airport manager Gerald Olson. “With 90 percent of all traffic moving through the top-70 airports, that leaves approximately 400 air service airports that are in many cases dramatically underserved.”

Mesa, for its part, has recently decided to abandon service to Cumberland, Md., and further reduce flying to Youngstown, Ohio, and Morgantown, W. Va. “US Airways is going to cover some of these routes because, politically, they feel they have to,” said Ornstein. “But if we’re losing money with a 19-seater you can imagine what they’re going to do with a Dash 8. They’ll get crushed. And even big companies don’t stand for losing $100,000 a month forever.”

Even in more moderately sized cities such as Naples, Fla. (population 200,000), 19-seat operators often represent the last link to the rest of the national air transportation system. “Over the last seven years that I have been in Naples, we have gone from having six or seven regional carriers to only two,” said Naples Airport Authority director Theodore Soliday. “US Airways Express flies Beech 1900s four to five times a day, and Cape Air serves specialty groups with nine-passenger Cessna 401s. American Eagle dropped service in April, leaving behind 80,000 passengers and a better than 70-percent load factor.”

Although Parker does not advocate returning to the regulated environment that existed before 1978, he stresses that RAP’s mission centers on more than just raising money for EAS improvements, but on raising awareness of the effects of the Part 121 transition, and perhaps modifying some elements of the rules.

Ornstein, however, views increased funding as the partnership’s top priority. “I hate to say this because it goes against my basic principles because I’m sort of a free marketeer, but if these small cities want to get 19-seat service, then the government is going to have to pony up some money,” said the Mesa chairman. “I don’t feel bad about asking for it because if they roll back the rules, we can do it. But under the new rules we can’t. And frankly I’d much rather save the 19-seat operation than just walk away from it.”