Sunday, October 9, 2016

Airlines court Essential Air Service

EL DORADO — El Dorado seems to have plenty of suitors who have shown interest in fulfilling the community’s Essential Air Service needs.

Representatives from three airlines stopped in town last week for a meet-and-greet with city officials, the El Dorado Airport Commission, the manager of South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field and other community leaders.

Another airline is expected to drop in at the airport on Tuesday, the day before the Oct. 12 deadline to submit bids to the

U.S. Department of Transportation for an airline to provide EAS to El Dorado and other Arkansas communities that were previously served by SeaPort Airlines.

On Sept. 20, SeaPort was ordered to liquidate its assets and cease operations as part of a bankruptcy ruling that was converted from a Chapter 11 protection filing to a Chapter 7 liquidation, which forced the Portland-based airline to ground its fleet.

The DOT subsequently issued an emergency request for proposals for a replacement service to take over the EAS routes in El Dorado/Camden, Hot Springs, and Harrison.

SeaPort had served El Dorado since 2009 and had generated mostly positive feedback from the community and those who used its services.

The airline’s contract with the DOT for the subsidized routes was to set to expire in the fall of 2017.

A replacement air service selected by the DOT would fill the unexpired contract.

Representatives for Boutique Air, Silver Airways, and Contour Airlines all visited Goodwin Field on Thursday.

“We have had a very positive experience with each of them and are greatly encouraged by the interest they have in serving South Arkansas Regional Airport,” said the airport manager Tim Johnson. “Each of them has unique strengths to bring to our community.”

Boutique Air, based in San Francisco, was selected earlier this year as the EAS carrier for Pendleton, Oregon, another community that had been served by SeaPort.

Pendleton city officials chose Boutique prior to the SeaPort bankruptcy ruling, as SeaPort’s federal EAS contract was set to expire there at the end of the year.

With several airlines looking at El Dorado as an opportunity for expansion, community leaders remain hopeful that commercial air service will return to the airport soon.

Mayor Frank Hash said he felt all three airlines were viable candidates to serve the region and offer interconnectivity at major air hubs.

While the mayor has his personal preference out of the three, he stressed that a meeting with the community does not mean that any of the airlines will submit a bid to the USDOT.

Neither does it bear on the airport commission’s recommendation, Hash said.

“They represented themselves well. It was a good meeting. We asked a lot of questions about what they can do for us,” said Mickey Murfee, chairman of the airport commission.

Hash and Murfee said the community is looking for reliable commercial air service.

Hash said he would prefer that Transportation Security Administration security screening be restored at the airport.

TSA removed screening equipment and three security employees from the airport in 2008, agreeing that such measures were no longer needed because the city was without a commercial carrier at the time.

Requirements for a fire truck at the airport and a police officer on site during arrivals and departures were also dropped then.

SeaPort began operations at the airport on Oct. 26, 2009, and because of the airline’s Federal Aviation Administration status — general rules that covered private jets — , TSA screening wasn’t required for its flights out of the airport.

When SeaPort began working to secure flights to Dallas Love Field to add to its daily Memphis route, the airline learned the FAA status would change because The Wright Amendment, is a federal law that regulates air traffic at Love Field.

However, SeaPort was able to strike deal with the city of Dallas to allow passengers to undergo security screening once they arrived in the Love Field terminal.

“I’d like to see those security measures restored. We’re looking to ratchet up airline service out of El Dorado,” Hash said.

The type of aircraft is also a consideration, the mayor said.

“I know some people aren’t comfortable with these single-engine planes, so I’d like to see a multi-engine airplane,” Hash said.

Johnson and Murfee said Southern Airways Express, headquartered in neighboring Mississippi, is expected in town on Tuesday.

The airport commission will hold its regular monthly meeting at 3 p.m. Monday at the airport.

On Tuesday, Murfee said the group plans to meet there with Southern Airways and then convene for a special called meeting to discuss the airlines who have shown interest in El Dorado.

“We are in the process, but we’re not at the point where we’re ready to make a decision. We’ll make a recommendation to the DOT, but they’ll make the decision,” Murfee said.

Added Johnson, “The airlines have until Wednesday … to submit their bids. We should have results from that the next day, then (the city) will have a period to make our recommendations to the DOT.”

Caitlin Harvey, public affairs specialist for the USDOT, previously said that carriers typically do not submit bids until the due date.


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