FAA budget shortfall delays plane production at Cape airport

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Commander owners gathered around a 1976 112A/HS owned by Paul Davis of Farmingdale, NY, at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport Saturday. From left, Sven Faret and Jim Bunn critiqued the Hot Shot as Davis and Steve Posner watched. (Fred Lynch)

By Jim Obert

Business Today

More than 16 months after relocating to Cape Girardeau Regional Airport from Bethany, Okla., Commander Premier Aircraft Corp. has not yet built a plane, but progress is being made.

Joel Hartstone, CEO and president of the company, said production is about four months behind schedule, "but we should be able to have our first plane in the air by summertime."

Hartstone said assembling airplanes requires adhering to myriad rules and regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year, Commander got FAA approval to sell parts from its inventory to owners of Commander airplanes currently in use. But getting FAA approval to purchase 85 percent of the parts needed to assemble new planes has been frustrating.

"We went through a monumental process, but we had it set up by last fall and all we needed was FAA inspection. But the FAA didn't have any money in their budget to inspect us at that time," said Hartstone. "So we had to wait until they had the money."

Hartstone said the FAA finally inspected the operation in mid-January, and he believes the report enabling Commander to purchase parts for assembly will be favorable.

"So, what we expected to happen in September happened in January," he said. "But we're pushing on."

Also at the airport, after a series of cancellations in December by the local carrier RegionsAir, the airport altered its schedule and eliminated early and late flights. The total number of flights are still the same, but most flights are now scheduled in mid-afternoon and evening.

The cancellation rate for 2006 was 8 percent, according to airport manager Bruce Loy. Cancellation rates haven't been higher than 3 percent since 2003.

Loy said the airport has not had a year like that in many years, adding that RegionsAir, which operates as an American Airlines connection service to St. Louis, has had some mechanical problems and problems associated with bad weather.

Loy said passengers were never put in danger, but birds had been flying into plane engines. He said that can put engines out of operation for weeks and leave the airline without a plane to fly the Cape Girardeau route.

The president and CEO of RegionsAir, Douglas Caldwell, said that since last spring, his fleet of 14 planes encountered eight events that necessitated the removal of a plane from the fleet. He said the number of bird collisions was unusually high in 2006, but none of the collisions happened at the Cape airport.

The two-year contract between RegionsAir and the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the federal Essential Air Program, expired Feb. 12. Since the contract is up and RegionsAir has had some problems, Loy said changing carriers is a possibility. As of press time, the outcome of the bidding process is not known.

Loy said he contacted potential carriers and also made recommendations to the Department of Transportation. He said there is the possibility that service could be expanded to new destinations such as Memphis, Kansas City, even Chicago or Cincinnati.

Loy said 2006 was a good year for boardings at the airport There were 8,270 passengers -- up 18 percent from 2005.

Also, The Cape Girardeau Regional Airport has opened a new restaurant called The Drop Zone. The Drop Zone, which officially opened Jan. 2, serves a Continental breakfast, lunch and dinner. Restaurant hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.

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