Monday, January 02, 2017

Greenbrier Valley Airport suspends Via Air service

LEWISBURG — Kinder Tuckwiller’s New Year’s plans didn’t include being stranded at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, but when flights between Charlotte and Greenbrier Valley Airport were suddenly and unexpectedly halted Saturday, that was where he spent it.

“There was no forewarning, no notification, nothing from Via Air,” he said Sunday afternoon, sitting at the airport waiting for another flight. “It’s not like [Via Air] have to contact everybody on a 737; their flights have 30 people at the most.”

Stephen Snyder, director of Greenbrier Valley Airport, said the airport leaders decided after an extended meeting – which started Friday night and stretched into Saturday morning – to take emergency action by suspending Via Air operations at 8:25 a.m. Saturday. 

Snyder said Sunday afternoon the suspension decision is temporary and he could not comment beyond a press release. “Greenbrier Valley Airport is committed to every aspect of our passengers’ experience. We will relentlessly continue our work to ensure the people of our region are properly served,” the airport’s two-paragraph press release read. 

Snyder said more information may be released later this week.

Greenbrier County Commissioner and Airport Authority member Michael McClung said Sunday, “I think Stephen’s words are accurate and have to be sufficient for now.”

McClung didn’t know if meetings were scheduled between the airport and Via Air or when the suspension would be lifted.

Tension between the airport authority and Via Air has been widely reported. Both Snyder and Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester described the airline’s recent decision, performance and conduct as “unconscionable.”

Messages with Via Air’s corporate office went unreturned Sunday afternoon. On the company’s website all flight information regarding Greenbrier Valley Airport had been deleted, including the press release announcing the start of air service.

A long-awaited two-year contract for Via Airlines Inc. to provide Essential Air Service for Greenbrier Valley was announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation in September. The contract specifies that the airline would provide 12 nonstop round-trip flights per week between Greenbrier Valley and Charlotte Douglas International Airport starting Oct. 1.

Part of the agreement was that, subject to availability of funds, the federal government would give Via Air an annual subsidy of $4,731,866 to provide the service. Regular fares for Greenbrier Valley flights range from $39 to $59 each way, inclusive of all fees and taxes. An email and call to the Federal Aviation Administration, about the future of the subsidy or if Via Air has already been paid, went unreturned Sunday.

Via Air’s proposal emphasized, “(B)eing on time is part of our core service.” The airline replaced Silver Airways. Prior to Via Air, airport officials were critical of Silver Airways’ lack of on-time arrivals and departures. In a series of letters to federal officials endorsing Via Air, Snyder blasted Silver for what he said was only a 90 percent flight completion rate.

The arrival of Via Air to Greenbrier Valley Airport was met with much pomp. In June, Snyder said, “Greenbrier Valley Airport has received numerous positive public comments on Via Air from customers who have utilized their services. Additionally, the comments regarding their proposal of a Charlotte market have been very well received.”

But stranded in Charlotte, nearly 300 miles from home, Tuckwiller had nothing positive for Via Air. When he departed on Thursday, his original flight was canceled, then combined with another one. The new flight was slated for an 12:48 p.m. takeoff but wasn’t airborne until after 3 p.m. 

Tuckwiller has taken the $40 Lewisburg-to-Charlotte flight five times, of which three had some departure and arrival issues. “If I cannot count on meeting my connecting flight ... what good is their service to me?” he asked. 

The staff scientist for Core Environmental Services flies frequently to visit his girlfriend in Detroit, using the Charlotte airport as a connector. Sunday afternoon, he was finally booked on a flight to an airport near Harrisonburg, Va., where his father will pick him up. 

In recent years, Via Air has inked deals with five small airports in West Virginia, including Raleigh County Memorial Airport. Tom Cochran, the manager of Raleigh County Memorial Airport, said that airport has had no problems with the airline in the last two years.

“Our service is running as usual,” he said. “Right now I am very confident in their service.”

Via Air uses an Embraer EMB 120, a 30-seater turbo prop, at Raleigh County’s airport, while at Greenbrier Valley Airport it flies the larger 50-seat ERJ-145 jet, which could be the reason for the difference in services, said Cochran. 


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