Sunday, June 08, 2014

Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Three airlines bidding for service

MUSCLE SHOALS — It appears the days of 34-seat turboprop planes or regional jets flying passengers from the Shoals to Atlanta have ended.

The three airlines that submitted bids to provide subsidized commercial air service at Northwest Alabama Regional Airport under the Essential Air Service program would utilize eight-passenger aircraft and fly passengers to either Memphis International Airport or Nashville International Airport.

Silver Airways, which provides daily flights to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, will leave the area once a new carrier can begin providing service. The airline's contract expires Sept. 30.

Silver provides commercial air service on 34-passenger Saab 340B Plus turboprop aircraft, which were also used by Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlink.

The airline notified the airport it was leaving in July, but the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a "hold in" notice requiring Silver to remain in the Shoals until a new air carrier is selected.

Shoals Chamber of Commerce President Steve Holt is pleased to see airlines willing to serve the Shoals under the Essential Air Service program.

"That's very good news for us," Holt said. "The regional airline market is changing rapidly. This is what the regional airline market is going to look like."

The airlines that submitted proposals are Sun Air of Fort Lauderdale, Florida; SeaPort Airlines of Portland, Oregon; and Air Choice One of St. Louis.

Nashville flights

Air Choice One is offering packages with 18 or 24 weekly flights to Nashville on either a Cessna Grand Caravan or Piper Navaho aircraft. The Grand Caravan is a single-engine turboprop plane while the Navaho is a twin-engine prop plane.

The airline's proposal indicates the annual EAS subsidy amount would be $2,283,993 for 18 weekly flights to Nashville.

The amount would decrease to $2,160,268 the second through fourth years.

Another option involves 18 weekly fights the first year, then 24 weekly flights the second through fourth years. The annual subsidy amount would be $2,283,993 the first year and $2,428,932 the second through fourth years.

The airline also offers a package deal that includes the Shoals, Tupelo and Greenville. In that option, the Shoals would have 18 weekly flights. The subsidy amount would be $7,063,494 annually.

SeaPort Airlines is offering a two-year proposal that includes 24-weekly round trip flights to Nashville on Cessna Caravans.

The annual subsidy amount is $1,739,308.

SeaPort's Executive Vice President Timothy Sieber states in the proposal that the contract will be for two years, but added the airline would agree to a four-year contract with no increase in the annual subsidy.

According to a tentative schedule, there would be four weekday flights with two flights on Saturday and Sunday.

The earliest departure would be 6:30 a.m., but Sieber indicates in the proposal that flight schedules could be affected on whether or not the Tupelo and Greenville, Mississippi, airports also accept the airline's proposal.

"If awarded less than all three communities, schedules would need to be slightly modified from those presented above in order to rotate aircraft in our Memphis maintenance base," Sieber stated in the proposal.

He stated the airline would solicit comments from each community on the proposed flight schedule.

Sun Air is offering a three-year package that includes 21-weekly round trip flights to the Memphis International Airport on an eight-passenger Piper Chieftain, which is similar to the Piper Navaho.

The airline is also offering proposals to Greenville, Tupelo and Laurel-Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

There is one caveat in the airline's proposal.

"Sun Air's proposals to provide service to Muscle Shoals and Greenville are contingent upon its proposal to provide service to Tupelo being selected," airline CEO David Hackett wrote in the proposal.

The proposal did not include flight schedules, but Hackett stated that Sun Air's operating plans are based on having multiple backup aircraft and each community would have at least one overnight aircraft to enable an early morning departure and evening arrival.

Holt, who has been involved in the airline selection process, said the key to gaining passengers will involve affordable, reliable air service.

"We've done really well until Silver came along," Holt said.

Silver Airways' flights were frequently delayed or canceled, which led to a severe decrease in boardings.

Morning flights

The airline also refused to offer an early morning flight that is attractive to business travelers, Holt said.

"We critically need that early morning and late evening (return) flight," Holt said. "For the business traveler, that's very, very important."

Holt said he thinks the traveling public in the Shoals and surrounding areas will respond to quality airline service that provides on-time departures and arrivals.

Airport Director Barry Griffith said a committee composed of himself, members of the Air Services Committee, the airport board of directors, and other civic leaders, will evaluate the proposals and select an airline.

He said the committee would also work closely with the directors of the two Mississippi airports.

"Once we've made a selection we'll enter into a whole new marketing and advertising effort to promote the service," Griffith said.

Griffith said he recently met with SeaPort and Air Choice One officials at a airports convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Because of the severe decrease in boardings, the Department of Transportation has threatened to terminate to strip the Shoals of its Essential Air Service status.

Griffith has said he plans to challenge the termination and use past data to show passenger traffic decreased after the arrival of Silver Airways. He will also provide records of the airline's poor on-time performance.


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