Borrello Trying To Secure Essential Air Service Pact
County Executive George Borrello is continuing to work behind the scenes to secure an Essential Air Service provider to the Chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown.
In January, the federal Transportation Department terminated its Essential Air Service agreement with Southern Airways Express after passenger counts fell to an average of four per day, far fewer than the Essential Air Service’s requirement of 10 passengers per day. The county airport also had trouble meeting the program’s requirement that subsidies be less than $200 per passenger, with subsidy-per-passenger numbers of $630 that ranked among the highest in the nation before the contract was terminated.
Borrello recently sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, and Kevin Schlemmer, federal Transportation Department Essential Air Service Division chief, responding to questions that had been raised by federal officials about a proposal submitted in May to secure an Essential Air Service contract for Boutique Air of San Francisco to provide air service at the county airport.
In the letter, Borrello argues that frequency and timing of Boutique Air flights, Boutique Air’s history of scheduled flight completion and the county’s passenger counts through 2014 are reasons the Transportation Department should approve Boutique Air’s contract.
FLIGHT FREQUENCY AND TIMING
Dating back to 2004, the county airport averaged 35.8 passengers per day with Cleveland as the destination. Those numbers dipped to 14,401, 9,033 and 8,233 through 2007 with Colgan Air. Colgan was succeeded by Gulfstream and passenger numbers continued to decrease before bottoming out with providers Sun Air and Southern Airways Express. Borrello’s letter states Southern Airways Express was operating four scheduled flights between Jamestown and Pittsburgh from Monday through Friday with the earliest Jamestown departure at 11:05 a.m. and the last departure from Pittsburgh at 3:45 p.m., with no interline or code-share agreements with others carriers.
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That meant longer layovers necessary so baggage could be transferred on to flight destinations.
“It also bears noting that the JHW-PIT flight schedule operated by SAE made it virtually impractical to fly round-trip to Pittsburgh and engage in any business or other outside activity outside the airport in a single day,” Borrello wrote.
Boutique Air plans to offer its first departing flight from Jamestown at 6:30 a.m., a time that allows for 161 domestic departures from Pittsburgh, or 71 percent of the Pittsburgh airport’s departures. Borrello also cites Boutique Air’s code-share agreement with United Airlines, which operates 42 daily departures from Pittsburgh.
FLIGHT COMPLETION RATES
Boutique Air has a 97.7 percent flight completion rate across its route network for the 12 months through January 2018. In 2017, Southern Airways Express completed 1,483 of its 2,717 scheduled flights under its Essential Air Service contract for a completion rate of 54.6 percent.
“SAE ignored the rule of business; you have to show up,” Borrello wrote to the federal Transportation Department. “Weather was not a significant factor; controllable completion rates varied slightly from non-controllable completions. The shoddy flight completion rates were entirely the consequence of calculated business decisions onthe part of SAE to under-resource the JHW-PIT route.”
PASSENGER TRAFFIC HISTORY
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the federal Transportation Department in considering a new Essential Air Program carrier for the county airport in Jamestown is the airport’s history of usage. While ridership hasn’t approached the high water mark of 35.8 passengers a day the airport since 2004, the airport did average at least 10.1 riders a day through 2014 and the switch from Cleveland as hub to Pittsburgh. Borrello wrote that Sun Air had contracted with Pacific Wings Airlines for reservations and ticketing infrastructure, but when Pacific Wings closed in 2015 the Jamestown airport had no reservations, ticketing or baggage agreements. Ticket counter sales were the only way to get tickets.
Pacific Wings’ closure, coupled with consolidation among major carriers and deconstruction of route hubs by United in Cleveland and then USAir in Pittsburgh meant air service providers in Jamestown lost connections to destinations from both Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
“Lacking code sharing or interline agreements, Sun Air and Southern Airways Express had little to offer Jamestown customers in the way of end-to-end flight assurances,” Borrello wrote. “These factors, coupled with an abysmal flight completion record between Jamestown and Pittsburgh, led to the precipitous decline in patronage from 2015 until termination of the EAS contract in January 2018.”
BORRELLO: WHY IT COULD WORK
Borrello was quick to tell federal officials that a return to pre-2015 ridership levels isn’t guaranteed. But, he wrote, the county could do well with Boutique Air since it has an airline that has an established and fully integrated code share agreement with United Airlines, an expanded flight schedule that helps people arrive in Pittsburgh earlier and return to Jamestown later in the day, low ticket prices, a nicer plane and an improving local business climate.
“The local business climate is healthy with notable growth in the tourism sector; demand for commercial air service continues to grow incrementally with opening of the National Comedy Center, expanded programs at Chautauqua Institute and Chautauqua Harbor Hotel/resort,” Borrello wrote.