Sunday, September 25, 2016

Commercial flights at Victoria Regional Airport in jeopardy

Commercial air service at Victoria Regional Airport is in jeopardy for the second year in a row.

The airport is in danger of losing $2.6 million in funding from the Department of Transportation's Alternative Essential Air Service, or EAS, program that subsidies commercial air service in rural communities.

For an airport to remain in the program, at least 10 passengers must board a plane every day. Texas Sky, the airport's commercial air service provider, is not hitting that quota.

This year so far, 1,383 passengers have boarded Texas Sky's planes at the Victoria Regional Airport, said Airport Director Jason Milewski. That number of passengers is down 23.2 percent compared this time in 2015.

Milewski said the airport was short 900 boardings to average 10 boardings a day.

To boost the average and to celebrate its second anniversary at the Victoria Regional Airport, he said, Texas Sky will sell 1,000 round-trip tickets to Houston or Austin for $1 each.

Currently, the federal government is subsiding each passenger out of the airport at roughly $385 per round-trip ticket, Milewski said.

"We're applying for a waiver to remain in the EAS program," Milewski said.

In 2015, Victoria Regional's waiver was approved by the Department of Transportation.

The EAS program is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport and Airways Trust Fund and its revenue comes from fees charged to foreign airlines that provide service to U.S. destinations.

Milewski said he was working to get letters of support from U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Victoria Economic Development Corp. and the Victoria Chamber of Commerce to include in the airport's waiver application to the DOT, which is due Wednesday.

"We're hopeful the waiver will be approved," said Milewski. "But obviously there's no guarantees; that's up to Washington."

Milewski said he hoped the airport would get an answer about its status in the EAS program before the new president takes office in January.

There's always uncertainty surrounding federal programs such as the EAS when a new president takes office, Milewski said.

"This is speculation, but this (presidential) administration and Secretary (Anthony) Foxx (of the DOT) have tended not to eliminate communities from the program," said Milewski.

At Thursday's airport commission meeting, Milewski said airport revenues were at $3.2 million and its balance was roughly $400,000 in the red on Aug. 31.

He said the airport had received its EAS subsidy reimbursement payment this week, bringing the airport's negative balance to about $6,600 as of Thursday.

He projected the airport would be in the red by about $155,000 at the end of 2016.

Victoria County Judge Ben Zeller said the airport would continue to operate if it was removed from the EAS program, but the community would no longer have a carrier providing air service.

Kevin Janak said that since 1995, Victoria County had invested $8 million into the airport.

"I get people calling me, saying why don't you just shut it down?" said Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gary Burns.

Burns said Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp., told him that an airport offering commercial and corporate service gives Victoria an advantage over other cities when he tries to attract businesses to the city.

"Without the airport, they (VECD) lose a major ace in the hole," Burns said.


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