Boutique Air CEO: We Can Achieve More Passengers

Shawn Simpson, Boutique Air CEO, admits things haven’t gone as smoothly as anticipated in the airline’s first foray into New York state.

Boutique Air began serving Massena in mid-April 2017, according to the Watertown Daily Times, offering flights to Baltimore-Washington International Airport once a day and to the Albany International Airport twice a day. Simpson told Massena Town Board members in February that flights from Massena to Albany were only about 40 percent full with revenue coming in at about half of what was initially projected. Simpson approached the board earlier this year to discuss his plan to improve ridership by flying into Boston rather than Albany and Baltimore.

“We did indeed face challenges in Massena,” Simpson said in an email to The Post-Journal on Sunday. “The two main issues were , first, flying to two different hubs in a route structure that was isolated from the rest of our network and second, having a small hub, Albany, with limited connectivity proved to not be as popular as we expected. In early 2018 we assessed what was working well and what was not working well and came up with a plan to get our enplanements and revenue where we want them. On June 1, 2018 we moved all flights from Albany and Baltimore to Boston, which has simplified our operations and also has much better connectivity for our passengers than Baltimore and Albany. It is already proving quite popular and we are only a few days in.”

While Massena customers reported having issues with customer service, Boutique did start a dedicated 24-hour local telephone line to help customers who were having issues while also working to establish more of a representative presence in the Massena airport to help customers. For Simpson, perhaps the biggest help to customers is being in a partnership with United Airlines which makes it much easier for customers to coordinate their flights from the smaller airport to the regional hub airport.

“One of the major benefits of Boston is that it leverages our new codeshare partnership with United Airlines so that our flights can be combined with theirs. When we started Massena this opportunity to combine flights with United was not yet possible,” Simpson said. “The single destination and superior destination are what we need to make for record passenger traffic out of Massena, which is what we are expecting.”

A review of past Essential Air Service applications showed Boutique Air had previously applied to be the Essential Air Service provider for the Jamestown airport. That application for flights from Jamestown to Pittsburgh estimated 7,946 passengers a year flying for an average fare of $59.25 per flight. The 2014 proposal, if projections were met, would have seen an average of 21.77 passengers per day at an average Essential Air Service subsidy per passenger of $197.82. Boutique Air’s 2018 proposal is for 12,564 passengers, a 58 percent increase from the 2014 proposal. That level of ridership would meet the federal government’s 10 passenger per day rule as well as its $200 rule, which stipulates Essential Air Service subsidies be less than $200 per rider. The Jamestown airport has failed to meet both rules in recent years.

“We expect that we can achieve more passengers now than in the past because we are more established as a carrier as well as our new relationship with United Airlines which helps broaden the visibility and connectivity for passengers and potential passengers,” Simpson said.

Simpson also called attention to Boutique Air’s experience with struggling airports. For example, the airport in Merced, Calif., had seen ridership ranging between about 200 to 700 riders a month before Boutique took over to between 1,100 and 1,700 a month in the roughly one year Boutique Air has been the airport’s Essential Air Service provider. Simpson called attention to airports in Show Low, Ariz., Muscle Shoals, Ala., Alamosa, Colo., and Merced as evidence of Boutique Air’s ability to turn around struggling airports.

Three of the four airports operate at a subsidy less than $200 per passenger. Ridership at the airports has improved as well — 102 percent at Alamosa, 309 percent at Merced, 647 percent at Muscle Shoals and 93 percent at Show Low.

Also worth noting, Simpson said, is that Boutique Air has never had the federal government terminate its Essential Air Service contracts for underperformance. A review of federal government documentation confirmed that statement.

“We try to face problems head on and deal with them directly when they occur,” Simpson said. “In aviation this is critical due the the complexity and expense of airline operations.”