The U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday awarded Big Sky Airlines a contract to provide three daily flights between Cape Girardeau and Cincinnati.
Public comments on the Essential Air Service contract were due Wednesday, and the department made its decision two days later. Everyone involved agreed that was a quick turnaround by a federal agency that typically takes a month or more to weigh options.
The speed may have to do with poor performance by RegionsAir, Cape Girardeau's current provider, which has recently been grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We're surprised by it, we're pleased by it, but you've got to remember they turned this around fast because of Regions, not because of DOT," said Big Sky president Fred deLeeuw.
DOT officials would not confirm a direct link but acknowledged they acted quickly.
"We made the decision within 24 hours of receiving community input. We don't usually do that, so that tells you we acted pretty quickly," said Dennis DeVany of the Essential Air Service program.
DeVany said his office will not pressure Big Sky to begin service before the RegionsAir contract expires May 31.
Big Sky's contract pays it to provide service from three cities: Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Tenn., and Owensboro, Ky., to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Big Sky will be subsidized $3,247,440 annually for service to all three cities, which equals $748.60 for every flight.
The airline has little time to celebrate the award. Big Sky now needs to worry about putting in place the infrastructure it will need.
"We've got a lot of things to do. We have to look at acquiring airplanes and getting crews. We'll work night and day to figure out what it takes to get up and going as fast as possible," deLeeuw said.
Time is the biggest issue.
"The money is not a problem. The company that owns us, MAIR Holdings, has $100 million, so it's not an issue. The issue is getting pilots through training and getting Delta to begin processing procedures; getting aircraft. There's no good answer I can give you right now on when we'll start," he said.
Typically, outgoing and incoming carriers share the load during a 60-day transition period when carriers change at an Essential Air Service airport like Cape Girardeau.
Big Sky has a fleet of 10 Beech 1900D twin turboprop planes. Each can seat 19 people. Big Sky currently serves 21 cities in seven states.
DeLeeuw said the company has contracts out on eight more Beech 1900Ds and options to buy four others, but all of these planes are now in use in other markets and not immediately available.
The Beech 1900D does not have a bathroom, which could be a greater consideration for passengers on the 85-minute flight to Cincinnati than the 27-minute flight to St. Louis.
335-6611, extension 245