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Hold Ups In Pilot Approval Bring Flight Cancellations To Airport

Flight cancellations have been seen at the Chautauqua County-Jamestown Airport over the last month as County Executive Vince Horrigan expressed his disappointment in the recent service. Keith Sisson, co-founder and chief commercial officer for Southern Airways Express, said the issue is due to final FAA approval for their new pilots to operate aircraft. P-J photos by Jimmy McCarthy

A string of canceled flights at the Chautauqua County-Jamestown Airport is drawing concern.

Southern Airways Express says the issue is due to an aggressive growth plan and a delay in getting final approval by the Federal Aviation Administration for new incoming pilots to operate aircraft.

The Memphis-based company took over passenger flight service in July after acquiring Sun Air Express, the previous commercial air operator, earlier this year. Since the takeover took place, flight improvements and enplanement increases have been seen.

Last month, however, issues arose as County Executive Vince Horrigan said flight cancellations started to occur. Horrigan expressed disappointment in the recent flight service as he reached out to Southern Airways to see what they were doing to turn it around.

“Hopefully it’s a temporary situation. We’re hoping it gets resolved here quickly,” Horrigan said.

Keith Sisson, co-founder and chief commercial officer for Southern Airways, told The Post-Journal on Friday the problem isn’t due to a pilot shortage. More, the issue surrounds getting final FAA approval for their new pilots to operate aircraft. Sisson said the pilot approval delays can be attributed to weather.

“I’ve hired in the last three months 42 pilots, basically tripling the size of our crew,” Sisson said. “We’ll have the check scheduled and the FAA shows up and we won’t be able to take off because of the fog. You have to reschedule the checks and this game has been going on for about four to six weeks now.”

Southern Airways Express operated in the Gulf region before acquiring Sun Air Express and adding flight service in the mid-Atlantic region. Over the past month, Southern Airways Express began service from Johnstown, Pa., to Pittsburgh International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport. Starting Jan. 3, Southern Airways will service passengers out of Dubois Regional Airport to Pittsburgh and Baltimore airports.

On Friday, flights were departing out of Jamestown to Pittsburgh where passengers can connect to other flights. Tickets were available yesterday and today for flights on iflysouthern.com.

Sisson said the problems faced over the past month won’t be long term. For those who were affected by cancellations, Sisson said they offered alternative plans to accommodate most passengers. Sisson said the next couple days could be difficult, but things will improve quickly.

“We’ve run a real solid operation and we’ve seen passenger loads in Jamestown that they haven’t seen in a decade,” Sisson said. “As we get into colder months, winter weather is going to play a role in this and we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that we have as many flights possible. In any condition that we can take off we’re going to have a crew there so we can deliver as many flights as possible.”

In October, Southern Airways has brought Jamestown operations in house. Before, Sisson said they were contracting with another carrier to operate flights.

As for the pilots, Sisson said they’re ready to go as soon as they’re approved by the FAA to fly planes.

“They’ve all been through the training. They’re sitting ready to go. I got them on payroll. They’re staying in hotel rooms,” he said. “Beginning next week, we’re going to start to see the cavalry come.”

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