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Airports Manager: Flying Smaller Planes Safer During Pandemic

Former County Executive George Borrello is pictured disembarking from a plane owned by Boutique Air in 2018.

A worldwide pandemic may be just what the doctor ordered to restore life to the Jamestown airport.

Chautauqua County’s airports manager is asking the federal government to provide federal Essential Air Service funding to reopen Jamestown’s airport to commercial travelers because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal officials pulled EAS funding from the airport in January 2018 because of a lack of passengers. In addition to not meeting the required number of passengers, the amount of federal subsidy per passenger using the Jamestown airport was higher than federal guidelines.

Ron Almeter, Chautauqua County airports manager, submitted comments recently to the federal government in support of the county’s plan to reopen the Jamestown airport with Boutique Airlines as the commercial service provider. The county’s joint proposal with Boutique Airlines was submitted to the federal government for approval in September.

“The local economy writ large, and the business partners that have pledged financial and services support to the airlines are struggling mightily with lost business and forced shutdowns,” Almeter wrote to the federal government recently. “The road to recovery includes, in part, the main runway at the Jamestown Airport. Affordable commercial service with attractive hub destinations is critical to revitalizing local tourism and reviving connections between local businesses and their national markets”

Almeter argued that air carriers who receive Essential Air Service subsidies are not using all of their budgeted money because of flight cancellations and service suspensions, which means restoring funding to Jamestown may not require new federal spending. Almeter also argues that executive order 13924, issued May 19, 2020, by President Donald Trump, gives the Transportaion Department authority to restore Essential Air Service to the Jamestown airport. The president’s order gives federal agencies latitude to address the economic crisis posed by COVID-19, including rescinding, modifying, waiving or providing exemptions from regulations that inhibit economic recovery. The federal CARES Act also has provisions to ease Essential Air Service performance measurements.

“The criteria that caused Jamestown to lose EAS service under the badly managed Southern Airways Express contract have been waived for all EAS carriers,” Almeter wrote. “This levels the playing field for new EAS routes to be introduced without the high barrier to entry/success imposed by achieving high load factors immediately upon start-up of new EAS contracted routes. TSA has significant underutilized personnel at (the Buffalo and Erie airports) due to the suspension of large-carrier service to those airports. They can act quickly to a ramp-up at JHW in step with resumed commercial service.”

Boutique Airlines is ready to provide service in Jamestown, Almeter wrote, with a maintenance facility open in Johnstown, Pa., and available air crews, service personnel and aircraft able to be deployed to Jamestown.

Air travel has declined roughly 90% in the midst of the pandemic, according to a recent Fortune.com story, with the number of available airline seats expected to far outnumber passengers for a while.

Almeter argued in his letter to the federal government that the public’s reluctance to fly on large airlines could provide smaller airlines in small markets like Jamestown with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. While the larger national airlines are reluctant to have flights with few passengers on them because they lose money on the flights, Almeter said regional carriers can be profitable with far fewer passengers.

“Established routes operated by large-cabin carriers will not soon resume scheduled service,” Almeter wrote. “Small carriers like Boutique have a unique opportunity to fill a demand that will re-emerge slowly. Further, travelers will be looking for new and more efficient routes and services as large carriers abandon underutilized legacy routes. Smaller is safer in an environment of ongoing contagious disease. The probability of contagious spread of COVID 19 and similar viruses is far less in small regional airport terminals like JHW served by small platform carriers like the 9 passenger Pilatus PC-12 operated by Boutique. Travelers don’t need to be contagious disease experts to recognize the lower health risks of traveling through less crowded channels.”

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