A choice for Crescent City airport has yet to be made after three airlines recently made presentations to Border Coast Regional Airport Authority.
The airlines are vying for the Essential Air Service (EAS) contract with the airport after airline company PenAir announced Aug. 4 that it was canceling air service for all non-EAS routes in the Pacific Northwest. On Aug. 7 the Alaska-based carrier disclosed its intention to file for a Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy.
Boutique Air, headquartered in the Bay Area, has EAS contracts with 17 communities in 31 airports. CEO Shawn Simpson gave a history of the airline to the board, saying it now has 450 employees and annual revenues of about $60 million. He said the airline has an excellent safety record.
Boutique was passed over in the last round of EAS applications, in favor of PenAir.
Another airline vying for Crescent City’s EAS contract is Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyoming. It has been operating since 1977.
Co-founder and CEO Doug Voss said the airline uses a fleet of 34 turboprop planes and codeshares with United Airlines. He said it was decided the airline’s routes would fly into Sacramento to avoid the congestion of Bay Area airports. He said he felt the route would be a good fit for Crescent City, as it would offer many options for connecting flights.
“Every major hub sees access in Sacramento,” Voss said.
Another contender, Contour Airlines, is the only one to offer a jet, but will require an alternate EAS contract, which would mean the airport authority would have to refuse the EAS applicants and file for a grant through the Federal Aviation Administration.
BCRAA Program Manager Susan Daugherty said funding essentially comes from the same place as EAS money but the board administers the grant.
Contour CAO Matt Chaifetz said his airline’s 30-seat jet plane was not the main reason the board and community should choose Contour. He said of the applicants, Contour is the most complex company, with 30 planes, and routes around the globe. He said the company is not affected by recent pilot shortages and aside from issues caused by Hurricane Irma, the airline’s completion rate would be 100 percent.
He estimated if Contour is chosen and the application process is started, the airline could be operating in Crescent City soon and would try to retain affected PenAir employees. The alternate EAS process could take three to six months, according to a board memo, but PenAir is under orders to remain in Crescent City until another airline takes over operations.
Boutique Air proposes to use an eight-seat Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turbo propeller plane. They offer three round-trip flights daily to Portland and two round-trip flights to Oakland. The second option offers three daily round trip flights to each.
For the first option, Boutique projects having 8,750 enplanements (number of people boarding) and a total EAS subsidy of $3,976,438. The second projects 10,500 enplanements and a subsidy of $4,379,680.
Great Lakes proposes using a 30-seat Embraer EMB-120, twin-engine turbo propeller for round-trip daily flights to Sacramento. Since its plane has 30 seats, Great Lakes projected it would use about 40 percent of the plane’s seats, or 8,953 enplanements. The projected subsidy amount is estimated at $2,987,892.
Contour proposes using a 30-seat, ERJ-135, twin-engine jet capable of making the flight to Oakland in about an hour. Contour estimated 10,296 yearly enplanements at 12 round trips per week to Oakland. The annual subsidy estimate was $3,953,027.
Leitner noted the EAS selection is not based on lowest bids but on community preference and local compatibility.
Time and money
For many passengers, two main considerations are flight durations and pricing.
Contour plans to offer fares for the one-hour flight to Oakland at $75.
“The service is useless if people aren’t using it,” said Chaifetz, “We use low fares to stimulate demand. In Tupelo, our fares range between $29 and $79 each way.” He said the airline will also offer what he called even lower supersaver fares to get people to use the service in the hopes they’ll continue to use it at the regular prices.
Boutique’s Simpson estimated average ticket prices to Portland and the Bay Area at about $120 but said fares could start lower, between $59 and $79, to help make the service popular.
Great Lakes’ proposal showed its other routes’ fares range from $50 to $99 and estimated that fares from Crescent City to Sacramento would come in at $77.
Voss said Great Lakes’ codeshare with United Airlines means passengers can effortlessly transfer to a UA flight and transfer baggage to the final destination. Great Lakes’ proposal notes its tickets can be bought through Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline and on its website Flygreatlakes.com.
Simpson said customer reviews agree the smaller nin-seat Pilatus feels more like a private jet than a passenger plane.
“We flew up in ours last night,” he said. “It’s smaller but it’s very comfortable.”
Following much discussion regarding each airline’s partnerships, pilot shortages and EAS and alternate EAS requirements, the meeting closed with no decision.
Leitner said by phone later the BCRAA will continue to take public comment until Oct. 12. A BCRAA board meeting will take place that day and summary presentations will be made.
Leitner said the authority board will then make a recommendation to the Department of Transportation. Leitner said the DOT gives extra consideration to community desires and the recommendation of the airport authority board.