Thursday, September 05, 2013

Foggy summer limits flights to Block Island, threatening federal grants, pizza runs


Ever had a hankering for Chinese takeout?

If you’re on Block Island, satisfying your hunger could be a tall order. Sky high, in fact.

The island has no Chinese restaurants, according to Deputy Town Clerk Millie McGinnes.

So what do you do to get your sweet-and-sour fix?

You could drive down to the harbor, put your car on the ferry for the one-hour trip to Point Judith, hunt down a takeout joint, and take the hour ferry trip back to the island.

But that’s a long way to go for General Tso, not to mention expensive.

Enter New England Airlines.

For $5 to $10, depending on the size of the order, owner Bill Bendokas and his pilots will fly foo yung to you on one of their passenger flights. They’ll accept delivery at Westerly State Airport, stow it in one of their Britten-Norman Islander 10-seat, twin-prop aircraft, and, 12 minutes later, land it at Block Island State Airport.

But you’d better pray that it isn’t foggy. If it is, your moo goo gai pan will be grounded.

Fog has proven to be a particular problem this summer, canceling an abnormally high number of flights.

“It was a multiple of what we usually have. It was a factor of two or three times the amount,” said Bendokas. “We’ve just had a lot of fog this summer.”

The gloomy weather presents a problem to more than just the moo-shu-deprived on Block Island. It could also cost the State of Rhode Island nearly $1 million in federal grants.

The Federal Aviation Administration awards grants nationwide to airports large and small to support passenger service, said Kelly Fredericks, president of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, a state agency in charge of Rhode Island’s six state-owned airports, including Block Island and Westerly. The grants are especially useful for items such as capital improvement, repairs and maintenance at the airports, Fredericks said.

Rhode Island gets a baseline of $150,000 for the passenger service between Westerly and Block Island. If the planes carry more than 10,000 passengers a year, Rhode Island gets an additional $850,000, for a total of $1 million.

Although the amount of the grant is based on the passengers traveling between Westerly and Block Island, the money does not have to be spent there. “We can use the funds at any airport in our system,” Fredericks said.

The Airport Corporation’s other airports are T.F. Green, the main commercial airport with major airline service, in Warwick; North Central State Airport, in Smithfield; Quonset State Airport, the former Naval Air Station, in North Kingstown; and Newport State Airport, in Middletown.

The $1 million for 10,000 passengers is where the fog comes in.

In July, New England Airlines carried 885 fewer passenger than it did in July of last year. The numbers dropped from 3,672 in 2012 to 2,787 in 2013, which Bendokas attributed to the weather, not a decrease in demand to get to and from Block Island.

With nearly 2,800 passengers in a single month, 10,000 for the year should be a breeze, right?

Not necessarily. The Block Island air-travel market is highly seasonal.

“It’s heavily weighted, of course, toward tourists, because that’s the life blood of Block Island,” said Bendokas, whose planes fly year-round.

“July is our peak season,” said Fredericks, who added that passenger traffic to the island drops off dramatically outside the summer months.

“The sky is not falling. We’re not being Chicken Little,” said Fredericks. “We’ve got to monitor this closely.”

So people who want Chinese on foggy days are out of luck, but what about the tourists who want to get to the island?

“Most of them simply go down and take the ferry,” said Bendokas. The ferry leaves from Point Judith, about a half-hour up Route 1 from Westerly State Airport.

Both modes of travel between the island and the mainland can be cut off by the weather, but it tends to be different kinds of weather. Fog keeps Bendokas’ planes grounded, while wind and high seas keep the ferries tied up at the dock. “We kind of complement each other,” said Bendokas.

On any given clear day, though, New England Airlines might be carrying just about anything out to the island, from plumbing parts and builders’ tools to Chinese food and boxes of pizza.

Said Bendokas: “We do a little of everything.”

Rhode Island’s state airports

The state of Rhode Island owns six airports under the control of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, a semi-independent state agency. The six airports each serve general aviation needs, which includes handling smaller aircraft that are used for business or pleasure. The airport also have some “specialties” for which they are known. Here’s a quick look at them:

T.F. Green State Airport


The state’s main commercial airport, home to regularly scheduled passenger service on major airlines, including Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United and US Airways

North Central State Airport


Home to recreational pilots and owners of small aircraft, helps relieve general aviation traffic at Green

Quonset State Airport

North Kingstown

Home to the Rhode Island Air National Guard air base

Westerly Airport State Airport


The jumping off point for Block Island

Block Island State Airport

New Shoreham

Destination for tourists — and Chinese takeout

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