Nature of EAS providers changes with the times

 - November 24, 2009, 7:28 AM

Over the past two years the profile of the “traditional” Essential Air Service applicant has changed dramatically. No longer the nearly exclusive domain of
19-seat turboprops, EAS awards have increasingly gone to Part 135 operations as more communities choose to waive the program’s requirement for twin-engine airplanes that carry at least 15 passengers. The reasons vary, but EAS towns have proved willing to tolerate smaller airplanes as long as their operators meet the obligations to which they’ve committed.

Unfortunately, with the demise of once perennial EAS providers Air Midwest, Skyway Airlines, Big Sky Airlines and RegionsAir, choices have diminished in recent years. Those airlines all flew 19-seat airplanes; their collapse has left Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Airlines, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Gulfstream International and Burlington, Vt.-based Commutair as the only 19-seat operators in the lower 48 states of the U.S. All fly Beech 1900Ds, but as those airplanes age and the number of examples available on the resale market continues to dwindle, even the airlines that still actively seek EAS work have found difficulty acquiring enough serviceable equipment with which to fulfill the program’s requirements.

Today, Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air, for example, has become a ubiquitous applicant for EAS subsidies and has won several contracts over the past two years on the strength of its cost proposals and flight completion record with its nine-seat, unpressurized Cessna 402 piston twins. Most recently, on November 8, it launched EAS operations from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Marion and Quincy, Ill. The DOT order covering those cities also included Decatur, Ill. and Burlington, Iowa, for which the department selected Air Choice One–another Part 135 operator, flying nine-seat Cessna Caravan turboprop singles. A sixth destination–Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.–went to Great Lakes, the airline chosen by the DOT in previous orders for all six of the Midwestern cities.

‘Serious Deficiencies’ in Service
Great Lakes inaugurated service to Burlington and Fort Leonard Wood on Oct. 7, 2007, Decatur, Marion and Quincy on Nov. 4, 2007, and Cape Girardeau on June 1 last year. However, by October 22, the date of the current DOT order, only Burlington and Fort Leonard Wood were receiving the full amount of weekly service originally promised by Great Lakes.

Based on the comments sent to the DOT from community leaders, Farmington, Mo.-based Air Choice One appealed to Burlington and Decatur largely because it promised to fly to Chicago O’Hare Airport as well as St. Louis, where American Airlines has announced plans to reduce schedules. Great Lakes now serves Decatur from St. Louis and Burlington from Kansas City. Air Choice One planned to assume responsibility for the Decatur-St. Louis route by November 15 and Decatur-Chicago on January 15.

According to the DOT, Decatur in particular has suffered from “serious deficiencies” in recent years, beginning when RegionsAir ceased all operations in March 2007, and Marion, Quincy and Cape Girardeau have all received less than their full EAS “for a significant period” over the past two years. RegionsAir’s replacement, Great Lakes, failed to reliably serve Decatur from St. Louis, for example, due to that airline’s inability to secure enough airplanes for the operation. So, at least in Decatur’s case, reliability trumped any benefit potentially derived from the use of larger airplanes by Great Lakes.

Of course, Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Marion and Quincy, Ill., will also see a downgrade in aircraft size with their selection of Cape Air. But, as in the case of Decatur, it appears that those communities value reliability, frequency and price over any perceived benefit derived from larger airplanes. Williamson County Regional Airport in Marion wrote, for example, “that [Cape Air’s] increased frequency of flights, lower fares, number of dedicated aircraft, and commitments of staff and advertising dollars to promote the service will produce exceptional results.”

In Quincy’s case, the airport director contacted several communities in the EAS program served by Cape Air and received some glowing reviews. “Each community made it clear that Cape Air has delivered on every promise it made and many stated that Cape Air had exceeded their expectations,” Quincy Regional Airport director Marty Stegeman told the town’s mayor.

Unfortunately for Fort Leonard Wood, the DOT denied its choice of Beech 1900 operator Gulfstream International Airlines because that carrier tendered a six-city, “all or nothing” proposal that only one of the six cities endorsed. Because Fort Leonard Wood did not waive its right to 15-seat or larger aircraft, Air Choice One didn’t qualify either. That left only Great Lakes–its current provider and, by default, the winner of the bid. The result likely didn’t sit well with Darlene Battle, chief of the transportation division of the Department of the Army, who wrote that Great Lakes’ on-time performance and availability status have “greatly declined” over the past two years. “It is difficult to encourage personnel to [use] the service when its on-time statistics are typically below 50 percent on a regular basis and the availability is continuing to drop,” wrote Battle.

Although the DOT appeared unimpressed with the cost of Air Choice One’s bid, perhaps making Fort Leonard Wood’s failure to waive the 15-seat requirement a moot point, a growing number of cities considering new EAS service appear far more willing to tolerate nine-seat airplanes than poor service in 19-seaters or no service at all.

The four Arkansas communities that chose Portland-based Seaport Airlines to fly Pilatus PC-12 turboprop singles from Memphis no doubt fall into that category. Until Seaport launched service on October 1, the towns–El Dorado, Harrison, Hot Springs and Jonesboro–hadn’t seen scheduled service since Mesa Air Group closed its Air Midwest subsidiary on January 6 last year. Although on February 1 of that year the DOT chose Great Lakes Aviation to fly the routes, it never managed to start operations and the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based airline withdrew its bid this past April 15.

With the addition of the four Arkansas cities, Seaport now flies PC-12s on five EAS routes, including a link between its Northwest hub in Portland, Ore., and Pendleton, Ore. Although it continues to bid aggressively for EAS contracts, Seaport faces the extra hurdle of needing waivers of the DOT requirement for twin-engine airplanes. In fact, because Cape Girardeau wouldn’t issue the waiver, the DOT dismissed Seaport’s proposal to fly there from Memphis in favor of Cape Air’s bid to fly to the Missouri destination from St. Louis.

Of course, Cape Air has won over converts in a fair number of small communities over the past two years, particularly among EAS beneficiaries that had become accustomed to “uneven” service in the past. Starting in November 2007 with its takeover of service between Boston and Rutland, Vt., from Commutair, which filed to exit its EAS markets as part of a plan to move into larger airplanes, Cape Air has embraced the program like few others. Barely four months later Cape Air assumed responsibility for service from Boston to Saranac Lake and Plattsburgh, N.Y., from Big Sky Airlines after that Montana-based Fairchild Metro operator liquidated. By September last year Cape Air began flying EAS routes from Albany to Massena, Ogdensburg and Watertown, N.Y., followed by Rockland, Maine and Lebanon, N.H., from Boston.

Other EAS routes on Cape Air’s schedule include Ponce and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, which it serves from San Juan. This year it broke into the Mid-Atlantic region when it began serving Hagerstown, Md., and Lancaster, Pa., from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.    

Jazz Drops Porter Lawsuit, Looks to Federal Remedy

Air Canada Jazz has dropped a lawsuit it filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against Porter Airlines and the Toronto Port Authority to “focus on the ongoing litigation in the Federal Court,” over access to Porter’s base at Toronto City Centre Airport.

Jazz claims that on Feb. 28, 2006, its landlord, Porter Group-owned City Centre Aviation, evicted it from TCCA to make way for then start-up Bombardier Q400 operator Porter Airlines–still the only carrier that flies from the downtown island airport. In response, it filed suit in Ontario court against City Centre Aviation and the Toronto Port Authority seeking damages for wrongful termination of its lease and other relief. In March 2006, Jazz filed a second complaint against the Toronto Port Authority “to ensure fair and equal access to a public facility” through a remedy available only through the Federal Court.

Air Canada harbors plans to launch service this year from the island airport using Jazz turboprops, effectively ending Porter’s monopoly. Although Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu earlier this year said he would like to start the service by next April, an airline spokesman told AIN that no firm timeline for resumption exists, “bearing in mind [Air Canada] would have to construct some facilities on the island such as a terminal or waiting area for passengers.”