Proposals for Cape Girardeau passenger air service give city 'leverage,' airport board member says

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The proposals to provide subsidized commercial passenger service at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport provide a good variety of aircraft, destinations and schedules, Airport Advisory Board member Rick Hetzel said Tuesday.

Speaking after hearing a sales pitch from Gulfstream International Airlines, Hetzel said reviews of the five companies vying for the local contract will give the board the ability to ask for changes from airlines eager to obtain a recommendation.

"Anytime we get five companies competing, it gives the city some leverage to get what is best," Hetzel said.

The meeting with Mickey Bowman, vice president of corporate development for Gulfstream, is the first of several to discuss individual proposals with airline representatives. There will be at least two more meetings, preferably next week, airport manager Bruce Loy said, followed by a board meeting to make a recommendation.

Cape Girardeau's service is being offered along with routes from Decatur, Ill., Marion/Herrin, Ill., Quincy, Ill., Burlington, Iowa, and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Gulfstream would take all passengers to St. Louis.

Gulfstream International Airlines, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wants to be the provider for all six cities, Bowman told the advisory board. The carrier's proposal, he said, meets the transportation department standards for aircraft size -- each airplane has room for 19 passengers, four more than the minimum. And the $12.14 million subsidy being sought is similar to what taxpayers would pay if the contracts are split among several carriers.

"To have sufficient mass to make this work for us, we have to have all six cities," Bowman said.

Of the other four carriers vying for the Cape Girardeau contract, only Locair, also of Fort Lauderdale, is planning to use 19-seat aircraft. Cape Air of Hyannis, Mass., SeaPort Airlines of Portland, Ore., and Air Choice One of Farmington, Mo., all have asked to use nine-seat aircraft. The city would have to approve a waiver if it selects one of those carriers.

Due to service interruptions, Cape Girardeau hasn't had reliable air service for a full year since 2006. In that year, almost 8,000 people boarded flights. So far this year, with carrier Great Lakes Airlines operating two flights daily, 404 passengers boarded through July 31.

'A trust issue'

Hetzel and other members of the board questioned Bowman about his company's commitment to providing good service. "We've got a community that is skeptical," Hetzel said. "There is a trust issue."

Gulfstream began as a charter airline in 1988. Today, Bowman said, it serves 25 cities in five states as well as the Bahamas and Cuba. Since it began serving five cities in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia in 2008 under an Essential Air Service contract, it has completed 96 percent of its scheduled flights, including flights grounded due to weather, Bowman said.

Bowman said Gulfstream will be ready when the contract starts by assigning three airplanes from its Florida operations and purchasing a fourth airplane to serve as a spare when one of the main three airplanes are out of service.

"We see this as a two-year commitment to make it work," he said.

The assurances about available aircraft allay some concerns, Loy said. But he wasn't pleased with the proposed Cape Girardeau schedule -- the first flight would leave at 8:05 a.m. and arrive in St. Louis at 8:55 a.m. By 9 a.m., Loy noted, 22 of American Airlines' daily flights from St. Louis have already departed.

"I had aircraft as a major issue," Loy said. "Now it is a minor issue. But I still don't like the schedule."

Other board members had issues with the timing of the last returning flight, which would leave St. Louis at 7:35 p.m. That's too early to help passengers who arrive on evening flights, board members noted.

Gulfstream plans to charge $50 each way for tickets. It also wants to establish "code-share" arrangements with at least one major airline so passengers can purchase a ticket to their ultimate destination through a single booking service.

The board's choice must be confirmed by the Cape Girardeau City Council as the city's selection. The final decision is up to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the Essential Air Service program that provides subsidies to support passenger service in smaller communities.

The Department of Transportation last week set a Sept. 16 deadline for recommendations from Cape Girardeau and five other cities included in the same bid package.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, Cape Girardeau, MO

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