Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cape Air boardings are taking off in Eastern Montana

SIDNEY — With a million frequent flier miles, Elizabeth Nicodemus had seen it all, but the nine-seat Cessna 402 Cape Air she flew in from Billings to Sidney was still a rare bird.

“I loved it. I got very comfortable with it right away,” Nicodemus said. “It was a little bumpy at one point but overall it was fine.”

The plane had just touched down in the heart of the Bakken oil patch. A ground crewman had unlatched the cockpit door and transformed it into a short three-step staircase to the runway asphalt. The plane’s lone pilot, who sits among the passengers during flight, and offers one passenger a chance to ride shotgun, had just finished taking questions about the trip and now it was time to unload, less than two hours after leaving Billings.

It was a fast, $49 flight, for a stranger-than-fiction assembly of passengers: four oil hands, a journalist and Elizabeth and Mike Nicodemus of Norfolk, Va., who were in Sidney to do some staff training at a local funeral home. Mike Nicodemus is a vice president of cremation services for the National Funeral Directors Association.

Cape Air flights to Eastern Montana have become a hot-ticket item since the Massachusetts-based airline became the Essential Air Service provider between Billings and five rural Montana communities. The service provides federally subsidized flights to rural communities that are long driving distances from urban airports and would otherwise have no commercial flights.

The airline transported 7,112 Montana passengers through April, according to flight data from the Montana Department of Transportation. By comparison, Silver Airways, the previous Essential Air Service provider for rural Montana, finished 2013 with 13,508 boardings.

Not only are Essential Air Service numbers up, but they’ve increased despite Cape Air servicing two fewer communities than Silver did. Airport staff said the airline's success stems from its reliability and price. It’s hard to make 267-mile drive from Sidney to Billings for $49, and time is money. The trip takes half a day by car.

“I love Cape Air,” said Leon Baker, manager of the Dawson Community Airport in Glendive. “Their flights come in and go out virtually at the same time every day of the week.”

The consistency is a big deal, because in the past Essential Air Service providers had different flight times for different days, which made it difficult for people to plan around. Occasionally, the planes were late or didn’t show at all, which made them too unreliable to attract repeat customers, Baker said.

At Dawson Community Airport, the number of passengers flying Essential Air Service has tripled when comparing the first four months of 2014 with the same period a year earlier when Silver Airways had the contract. Baker said the passenger increase is partly because of the Bakken oil boom and partly the lower ticket price. The $49 one-way fare is $26 less than EAS flights cost last year when Silver Airways serviced the area.

Glendive is about 55 miles away from Sidney, which is the most active EAS community with five round-trip flights daily. Flights from Billings to Sidney fill up quick and must be booked a few days in advance. A Glendive flight can be booked a few hours ahead of time.

“I tell people to show up early and get on the plane,” Baker said. “There’s a 99 percent chance there will be an open seat.”

Debbi Alke, administrator of the Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division, said the Cape Air’s flights take off and land on time 93 percent of the time unless weather or other external challenges slow the airline’s progress. That completion rate is remarkable, Alke said, given the struggle other airlines have had providing the EAS contract service.

EAS is a product of the Jimmy Carter presidency, when the major airlines became deregulated and were no longer obligated to provide service to unprofitable markets. EAS was intended to keep at least one commercial service in small market airports that weren’t within a couple driving hours of a larger commercial airport.

Essential Air Service is federally subsidized in Montana at roughly $500 per passenger for flights to Glasgow, Glendive, Havre and Wolf Point. Sidney’s flights aren’t as subsidized, at $237. The federal government cut Lewistown and Miles City from the program last year, arguing that they were within drivable distance from Billings, the terminus for all Essential Air Service flights.

However, even with government support the air service has proven challenging for small airlines with EAS contracts. Cape Air is Montana’s fourth EAS provider in the last six years. Early into the airline’s tenure, it appears Cape Air is staying aloft. Rural airports are already asking the airline to increase its number of flights when the company’s EAS contract is up for bid again in late 2015.

“Absolutely there has been interest expressed from the communities for more flights," said Erin Hazel, Cape Air spokesperson for Montana. We would be happy to add more flights, but that’s all determined by the Department of Transportation.”

Story and photo gallery:

Cape Air station manager Linda Sackman signals the pilot of a Cessna 402 where to shut down on the ramp at the Sidney airport.

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