Airport board chooses Great Lakes

Thursday, January 17, 2008

When the time came for the Cape Girardeau Airport Advisory Board to make a decision, it boiled down to track record versus grand vision.

Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyo., a company that has steadily built its business on taking advantage of federal subsidies available through the Essential Air Service program, won the board's nod Wednesday evening to provide commercial passenger service.

The board rejected the bid from Air Choice One, a Farmington, Mo., company that is trying to construct a business model that would not rely forever on taxpayer help. "I was impressed with the concept of a small airline," board member Walt Wildman said. "I don't think it is time."

The city's recommendation will be finalized at a special meeting of the Cape Girardeau City Council at 5 p.m. today. The final decision on which airline will receive the contract abandoned Jan. 7 by Big Sky Airlines will be made by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

If the council ratifies the advisory board's decision, Great Lakes will be the unanimous choice of Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Tenn., and Owensboro, Ky., the three cities combined into one contract under the Essential Air Service program.

The board approved the choice without dissent. The board also approved asking the transportation agency to make St. Louis the destination for flights originating in Cape Girardeau.

Some members preferred flights to Kansas City, but all in the end supported St. Louis as the destination.

"We're making the best choice of the options we have," board chairman Gerry Keene said after the vote.

Great Lakes is seeking to obtain the routes and aircraft flown by Big Sky airlines, an effort that is being met with resistance in Montana by Big Sky pilots who are trying to form their own airline. According to a report in the Billings Gazette, Great Lakes has 100 jobs open, is having difficulty obtaining 10 Beechcraft 1900 airplanes flown by Big Sky and is not willing to meet the pay scale Big Sky pilots have earned.

Great Lakes operates in numerous Western cities and has been flying passengers since 1981.

Air Choice One made a failed attempt to provide service from Lake of the Ozarks to St. Louis and has obtained a federal grant to serve Mountain Home, Ark., with service in a nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft but has not begun flying. The company operates a successful charter service.

Under the contract proposed by Great Lakes, it would make 19 round-trip flights each week from Cape Girardeau to St. Louis and would require a subsidy of $1.5 million annually to provide the service. Great Lakes estimates that customer fares would be approximately $75. Great Lakes is asking for about $4.5 million annually to provide service to all three cities on the contract.

Keene and board member Rick Hetzel argued in favor of linking Cape Girardeau to Kansas City. Flying west, they said, would provide a transportation option for area residents similar to what was intended when the city opted to link itself with Big Sky and flights to Cincinnati last March.

"Our job is to provide transportation options," Keene said. "Going to St. Louis isn't a transportation option. We already have that" through driving and shuttle van services.

But board member Robbie Rollins said the issues with Kansas City service are similar to those related to Cincinnati service -- in the case of canceled flights, Southeast Missouri travelers would be five to six driving hours away from home. If a traveler is caught in St. Louis by weather, he said, the drive or van ride would be much shorter.

Neither Great Lakes nor Air Choice One have what is known as a code-share arrangement with a major airline. A code-share arrangement allows shared reservations, and the parent airline provides a portion of the passenger's total ticket price to the feeding airline to obtain access to passengers flying on the smaller carrier.

A transportation department spokesman said earlier this week that the agency is likely to make its decision on awarding the contract next week.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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