Matt Chaifetz (front, center), CEO of Contour Airlines, walks with Boone County Airport manager Judy McCutcheon (left) after arriving at the airport on October 19, 2016 to make his proposal for his company becoming the Boone County Airport’s essential air service (EAS) provider. Visitors had an opportunity to look over one company’s twin engine aircraft after the presentation.
Contour Airlines has been chosen to provide scheduled air service at the Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison.
Judy McCutcheon, the airport manager, said its board voted 4-1 on Monday, picking Contour out of seven companies that submitted proposals.
The final decision will be up to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they have always approved the provider that was recommended by the airport board, said McCutcheon, who has been the airport manager for 25 years.
The Harrison airport is one of three in Arkansas that lost its air service provider when Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines abruptly ceased operations on Sept. 20. The other two Arkansas airports that were served by SeaPort are in Hot Springs and El Dorado.
All three Arkansas airports qualify for the federal government's Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to ensure that small communities have scheduled air service. SeaPort received $5.9 million in annual subsidies to serve the three Arkansas airports.
On Sept. 21, the Department of Transportation issued an emergency request for proposals to provide air service for El Dorado, Harrison and Hot Springs. The department asked for proposals to provide three round-trip flights per weekday (18 flights per week) to a large or medium hub on aircraft that seat nine passengers.
Historically a charter service, Contour recently began providing Essential Air Service flights to airports in Tupelo, Miss., and Bowling Green, Ky., said McCutcheon. The company is based in Smyrna, Tenn.
One thing that made Contour stand out was its twin-engine Jetstream 31 turboprop aircraft, said McCutcheon. They're made for 19 seats, but Contour will remove 10 seats from each plane so the company can qualify for the federal subsidy. That will mean five feet of legroom for passengers and plenty of room for luggage, she said.
"You can carry all the luggage you want," said McCutcheon. "I'm thinking these business travelers are going to love being able to stretch out in that thing."
Contour's planes can fly at an altitude of 30,000 feet, said McCutcheon. The single-engine Cessna Caravan planes that SeaPort used on the Arkansas routes could only fly at 10,000 feet, she said.
Harrison is home to FedEx Freight, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp., which is based in Memphis. So it's important to have flights between those cities, said McCutcheon.
Contour will provide two round-trip weekday flights to Dallas and one round-trip weekday flight to Memphis. On Saturdays and Sundays, Contour will provide one round-trip flight from Harrison to Dallas. The company will also provide one round-trip flight to Memphis on weekends.
To serve the Harrison airport, Contour is asking for a $4.7 million annual subsidy through the Essential Air Service program. McCutcheon said Contour wants to be able to keep ticket prices low and offer flights from Harrison to Dallas for $49 each way.
Contour could have everything in place to begin serving Harrison in two to three months, said McCutcheon.
Glen Barentine, director of the airport at Hot Springs Memorial Field, said he will meet with the Hot Springs Board of Directors today and a decision will likely be made at that meeting.
Barentine said he has received six proposals, and all six companies had also offered to provide air service to Harrison and El Dorado.
Barentine said passengers in Hot Springs are more interested in going to Dallas than Memphis. While all three Arkansas Essential Air Service program airports historically have chosen the same air service provider, this year they could chose three different ones, said Barentine.
"Each airport has some different wants and desires," he said.
El Dorado is home to Murphy Oil Corp. and Lion Oil Co. Executives with those companies often travel to Houston, so that has been a destination for business flights from the South Arkansas Regional Airport in El Dorado.
But Dallas is a popular destination for consumers in south Arkansas, said Tim Johnson, manager of the El Dorado airport.
"We're getting feedback from a lot of folks in town that Dallas would be a more popular destination," he said.
Johnson said they'll probably make a decision at a meeting on Monday.
"Over half of my commissioners are out of town," he said.
SeaPort had two daily round-trip flights from Memphis to Houston on weekdays. Hot Springs and El Dorado were stops along each of those routes. So El Dorado had direct flights to Houston and Hot Springs, and a flight to Memphis that stopped in Hot Springs on the way.