Friday, April 22, 2016

Pierre task force grills ADI, Great Lakes over air service; decision due to feds April 27

Laura Schoen Carbonneau, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, left, and Jim Protexter, CEO of the Pierre Economic Development Corp., question Doug Voss, founder, and Chuck Howell IV, CEO of Great Lakes Airlines, Thursday at the airport.Eleven members of the city's air service task force, interviewed Great Lakes and ADI officials.

Honchos from two small airlines with different cuts to their jibs flew into Pierre’s airport on wings and prayers Thursday to woo the capital city in hopes of winning a big federal subsidy for taking people to and from here.

Mickey Bowman, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Aerodynamics, or ADI, came alone and only flew figuratively to Pierre.

“I flew to Sioux Falls,” he said, driving here because he couldn’t catch a flight to Pierre that fit his connections from the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw where ADI is based.

Which illustrates the problem Pierre faces. It’s hard to fly from here. Its longtime air carrier Great Lakes Airlines has angered city leaders with what they call unreliable and unfriendly service that has cut passenger numbers by nearly two thirds in about two years. Several years ago, 17,000 people a year flew from Pierre; this year, based on the first three months, the numbers may not total 5,000 by Christmas, says Mike Isaacs, manager of the Pierre Regional Airport.

Saying he understands the problem and is committed it making things right, Charles R. Howell IV, Great Lakes CEO, brought three other VIPs from the Cheyenne-based  airline, including Doug Voss, who founded the company in 1977 with Ivan Simpson.

They flew in on one of Great Lakes 22 Beechcraft 1900 turboprops like the ones that now fly every day to Pierre.  

Great Lakes has been a small regional airline offering scheduled passenger service in many states for 40 years. It’s the last one, Howell admits, to use the 19-passenger turboprop. But if it is selected by Pierre for the federal subsidy program, it will upgrade its service to Pierre using its 30-passenger Brazilian planes, Howell said.

Meanwhile, ADI has never flown as a scheduled commercial airline, although it’s been in the charter business from more than a half-century. Bowman said ADI hopes to begin flying routes from Youngstown, Ohio to Chicago by June.

Pierre’s dozen-member air service task force interviewed each airline’s leaders separately Thursday at the airport.

Both companies have submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation hoping to be awarded several million dollars a year in subsidies under the Essential Air Service program.

Mayor Laurie Gill, saying she had lost patience with Great Lakes’ record of cancelled and late flights and poor customer service in working with passengers, initiated the search for a new air carrier two years ago, forming and leading the task force.

The same two companies made similar bids for similar subsidies just 18 months ago and the city’s same task force chose ADI.  

That blew up, however, as ADI’s then owner Scott Beale was rejected by DOT officials, who cited his legal and financial troubles and his failure to be honest with regulators about it. ADI’s board told Beale he had to go and find a new owner, Bowman said.

Gill asked Bowman if Beale had anything to do with ADI today.

“No, ma’am, he is persona non grata,” Bowman said, describing Beale’s disappointment when ADI’s board told him he had to go. “He bowed his head and left the room.”

Bowman touted ADI’s three 50-seat Brazilian Embraer jets as fast – “one hour of airtime to Denver” – and having the capacity to build up passenger numbers with convenient travel. ADI’s bid is for two flights from Pierre to Denver each weekday, one on each weekend day, with one-way fares of $99, Bowman said.

Despite the fact ADI has never been a scheduled commercial passenger carrier, its experience flying corporate charters for “people who could buy our plane,” gives his company experience in providing great customer service for very discriminating clients, Bowman said. And many of ADI’s business shuttles in California for Intel involved, effectively, thousands of scheduled flights over the years, he said.

The needed agreements with major airlines to provide passengers with convenient connections can be obtained, Bowman said. He’s working with Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale to gain such access through that company’s agreements with major airlines, Bowman said.

Bowman said ADI “is invested in Pierre. We came here with the best intentions some time back. It didn’t work out the first time around for a variety of reasons. But we are very grateful the opportunity is out there for what we feel is manifest destiny for us. . . We want to be part of this community and want to partner with you in building a bright future.”

The task force’s interview of Great Lakes’s corporate leaders was a trifle sharper, due to the long record with the airline.

“There’s no need to rehash history over the pilot situation,” Howell told the task force. “We went from 300 pilots to 100 in two years.”

The new federal regulations require 1,500 hours of training for pilots, five times the previous requirement, Howell said.

To cope with the new reality, Great Lakes took 10 of the seats out of their 19-seater turboprops, so that they would qualify for one pilot, not two.

He listed a variety of things the company has done the past six months to attract more pilots, including raising their pay and also looking for part-time pilots in places such as Pierre, people with other jobs who might want to moonlight flying a few flights to Denver every month.

Howell and Voss took heated expressions of frustration from task force members.

John Hight, a hunting resort owner who also does a lot of personal travel, told them Great Lakes customer service in Denver is often less than helpful – “they don’t even answer the phone” – hurting his business.

Dale Person, branch manager of AAA Travel in Pierre who has worked 35 years in the industry, told Howell, “I work with hundreds of airlines and yours has the most cancellations of any airline.” He’s had clients find out as they arrive at the airport, that their flight has been cancelled, Person said. When asked if there’s a price for a flight to or from Pierre, Person says he tells the customer, “‘There’s a price but it’s not reliable.’ You say it's going to get better, but it’s gotten worse. How are you going to convince people in Pierre to return to Great Lakes to fly?”

At this point, Gill interrupted, saying it was clear there were high emotions in the room.

“Yes, I’m upset,” Person said.

Gill told the Great Lakes leaders: “Our main concern is getting back to reliable service. We’ve got to. If we would go with you and commit to you and see the same pattern of cancellations, you will kill this. We won’t make it. This is huge.”

Howell said he knows his company deserves brick bats for some of the problems, but said, “whether good, bad or indifferent, we have hung around.”  That shows his company’s commitment to Pierre, when it could have left a long time ago, he said.

Communities with three times Pierre’s population have lost all air service in the recent turmoil, Howell said.

For years, Great Lakes has received no subsidies for flying to Pierre. Now, if it wins the EAS designation, it will have the resources to improve training and service and its equipment - the planes, Howell said. Going from a nine-seat plane to a 30-seat aircraft will provide more reliability and increase passenger numbers again, Howell said.

“This is an all-in for Great Lakes. We are going to give an all-in deal,” Howell said. “If we are selected, we are all in, whatever that means, resource-wise. We can’t afford to fail, either.”

If Great Lakes loses the bidding battle for EAS subsidies this time, it will quit flying to Pierre, Voss and Howell said.

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