Nevin Spade, manager of quality control for Southern Airways Express at Lancaster Airport, works on the engine of a Cessna 208 aircraft.
David Eberly, Lancaster Airport Director.
Bruce Oudenhoven waits for a flight at Lancaster Airport on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
On a sunny afternoon last week, Bruce Oudenhoven was waiting for his flight on Southern Airways Express from Lancaster Airport to Washington-Dulles.
Oudenhoven works for Appleton, Wisconsin-based Pierce Manufacturing, which builds fire trucks. A few times a year, Oudenhoven delivers a fire truck to Glick Fire Equipment Co. in Bird-in-Hand, bringing it in from Appleton or another Pierce dealer.
The airport in Manheim Township makes his trip home a lot easier.
“This is much, much more convenient,” he said. “For me, it’s the perfect thing.”
The flights Oudenhoven and others take into and out of Lancaster are supported by the federal Essential Air Service program. Set up in 1978 to cushion small airports through airline deregulation, it subsidizes commercial airline service in communities where it otherwise wouldn’t be viable.
Lancaster Airport has received funding since 2004; the money currently underwrites multiple daily flights to and from Dulles and Pittsburgh. But the U.S. Department of Transportation wants to take Lancaster and 21 other airports out of the program because they’re not meeting its minimum criteria.
Airports that receive the funds are supposed to have at least 10 round-trip passengers or “enplanements” per day and a maximum per-passenger subsidy of $200. Lancaster Airport’s figures for the year ended Sept. 30 were 4.2 enplanements and a $764 per passenger subsidy.
Keith Sisson is chief operating officer of Southern Airways Express, based in Memphis, Tennessee. In March, it acquired Sun Air, the carrier serving Lancaster and five other small-city airports in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland.
The feds are looking at the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Since then, Lancaster Airport has been enjoying what Sisson calls “the best turnaround in the country.”
Airports can remain in the federal program if they can demonstrate that their problems were temporary and are being resolved. That’s the case here, Sisson and airport officials say.
Lancaster Airport’s passenger numbers are rebounding, a process that began even before Southern Airways bought Sun Air.
From January through May this year, enplanements were about 3.75 times what they were during the same period in 2015: 2,534 versus 669. Two of the past three months were above the 10-enplanement-per-day threshold, and the third was close: 9.7 in April.
As for the $200 per-passenger subsidy cap, Sisson said Southern Airways can meet that requirement with just one more passenger per flight: “It’s so attainable you can taste it.”
That’s especially so with the capital and personnel investments Southern Airways is making, which it is confident will take the gains to the next level.
It’s hiring more pilots, to make it easier to staff flights, and it’s introducing roomier nine-passenger Cessna Caravan turbo-prop aircraft, which Sisson says have the feel of corporate jets.
Three Cessnas will arrive this week, and nearly a dozen more will be serving the former Sun Air routes by October, he said.
Southern Airways is phasing in new flight times to maximize flight connections in Pittsburgh and Dulles. For the same reason, it’s looking at shifting the Dulles route to Baltimore-Washington.
The goal is to come into compliance with Essential Air Service criteria and remain eligible for the subsidy, Sisson said. While Southern Airways hopes to grow the market as much as possible, “it would be difficult for an air service provider to provide consistent scheduled service at Lancaster without the subsidy help,” he said.
Sun Air had a lot of problems in 2015, Sisson said. It switched from single-pilot to two-pilot crews, but Federal Aviation Administration staff shortages led to long wait times for the flight tests that pilots need to earn certification.
In addition, Sun Air temporarily lost its reservation system when the commuter airline providing it closed up shop. And a bad 2014-15 winter resulted in late and canceled flights.
Southern Airways, by contrast, has some of the best flight-completion statistics in the industry, Sisson said.
The company was founded just three years ago, in June 2013. It’s a highly unconventional airline: It sticks to small airplanes and small airports, a practice that allows it to steer clear of various regulations that don’t relate to safety but add to costs. Its pilots wear blue suede shoes.
“We’re everything the legacy carriers aren’t,” Sisson told the online magazine The Bitter Southerner last year.
Other carriers may fly faster planes, but “air time isn’t what people hate about flying. We just cut out the hassle of the big TSA (Transportation Security Administration) hub on either end,” he told the magazine.
In the mid-Atlantic, unlike the Gulf, Southern Airways can’t stick to private terminals and bypass TSA hubs: The hubs are where people want to go. That’s fine, Sisson said: “There is no plan to remove TSA from our process” in Sun Air’s former footprint.
Lancaster Airport Director David Eberly called Southern Airways’ approach “refreshing.” It’s nice to see a company bringing back a focus on customer service, he said.
The bottom line is, Southern Airways saw value in Sun Air’s mid-Atlantic business, Sisson said.
“We can really make something," he said.
Original article can be found here: http://lancasteronline.com