Thursday, September 1, 2016

‘We’ll get you there’: New carrier strives to be region’s hometown airline

Plans are on course for a smooth takeoff next month when Southern Airways Express begins operating Johnstown commuter flights. 

With six flights a day from Johnstown, four from Altoona and six from DuBois, travelers from the west-central Pennsylvania area will have many options to connect with larger carriers and low-rate airlines at three major airports, Executive Vice President Mark Cestari said.

Three daily round-trip flights from John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport will go to Pittsburgh International Airport and the other three will continue the connection with Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

Fares will range from $29 to $59 a seat for every Pittsburgh flight and $39 to $89 for Dulles.

“The $29 is not a sale price,” Cestari said. “We will control availability of fares based on peak times, but there will be $29 seats on every flight.”

Southern flights from Altoona and DuBois will go to Pittsburgh and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

“We are offering all of our markets two hub airports,” Cestari said. “We’ll have service to three airports from the market area. That’s the way to do business.”

Earlier this week, the federal Department of Transportation announced Southern Airways Express had been selected to serve Johnstown, Altoona and Johnstown airports under the federally subsidized Essential Air Service program. Within days, the three airports were informed they were being dropped from the EAS program because of low ridership or high costs. 

“Instructions on how to apply for a waiver were included in the order,” Johnstown airport Manager RaNell Fenchak said. “I’ve already begun the process.”

Airport officials said they are confident the local airports will receive a waiver because the current carrier, Silver Airways has been unreliable. 

“We are very excited about (Southern),” Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority Chairman David Kalina said. “We have an additional destination with Pittsburgh and they do have a track record of service and reliability.”

Southern will operate nine-passenger Cessna Caravan aircraft, Cestari said, adding that the smaller planes allow the low-cost regional airline to offer more options from each airport. 

“It was developed for Federal Express,” Cestari said. “They fly to hundreds of airports. It is a nine-passenger plane with large baggage pods. We are not going to have any trouble carrying large suitcases, golf bags or fishing poles.”

Southern does not charge a baggage fee, he added. 

The Cessna Caravan’s dependability has been proven not only by FedEx, but also by its service connecting remote areas of Alaska, Cestari said. 

Johnstown’s airport authority agreed to allow Southern to operate the single-engine Cessna because of its proven dependability, Kalina said. 

“I have no concerns with that at all,” said Kalina, who is a pilot. “Worldwide, the Cessna Caravan has, arguably, the best single-engine aircraft reputation out there.”

As an independent air carrier, Southern’s passengers will have a few more steps in transferring to other airlines. Although most take their baggage to the connecting gate, Cestari said, most checked bags won’t require a baggage fee on the other airline. 

Transferring passengers will get priority check-in, he added. 

Southern’s business plan focuses on getting travelers to the greatest number connecting flights and options. Some travelers prefer the major airlines’ service and are willing to pay for the amenities, Cestari said. Others are looking for low cost airlines.

“You decide what you want; either way, we’ll get you there,” he said. “We are the hometown airline.”

Dulles is home to a United Airlines hub, offering connections worldwide. Pittsburgh features a selection of low-cost airlines. 

“Those two airports really represent the best of both worlds,” Kalina said. “It really opens up opportunities.”

Basing two planes in Johnstown will also improve dependability,    

“Our flights are all nonstop.” Cestari said. “Our pilots are based in the city they serve. Our pilots will live in Johnstown. Our planes will sleep in Johnstown.”

A spare crew and plane based in Pittsburgh will available if there are problems.

“Those are the reasons we think our service level is going to be exceptional,” he said. 

Although there have been no discussions with current Silver Airlines employees at the airport, Cestari said Southern would prefer to hire those with experience in the market.


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