Saturday, July 07, 2018

Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Authority (KPKB) recommends new carrier: Manager to negotiate with Contour for jet service

Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Manager Glen Kelly discusses Essential Air Service bids during a meeting of the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Authority Friday at the airport. 

WILLIAMSTOWN — The planes would be different but the destination the same if an agreement is secured with a new carrier to provide service at the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport.

The Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Authority, the airport’s marketing arm, voted 7-0 Friday morning to authorize airport Manager Glen Kelly to enter negotiations and execute an agreement with Tennessee-based Contour Airlines under federally subsidized Alternate Essential Air Service. Contour is offering 12 flights a week to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, with each one stopping in Beckley. Those flights would be aboard jets with space for 37 seats but converted to 30, allowing 36 inches between seats, Kelly said.

“I believe we’re the carrier that gives (the airport) the greatest chance of reducing their reliance on subsidy in the future,” said Matt Chaifetz, CEO of Contour, in an interview later Friday. “I’m confident that we are the carrier that can give Parkersburg the best value.”

If an agreement cannot be reached, the authority agreed to recommend staying with current provider Via Air, although not without some reservations.

“I’m recommending Contour,” Kelly said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get beyond three or four thousand enplanements with Via.”

There was much more optimism when the authority recommended Via to take over from Silver Airways two years ago. The company had canceled just one flight in 18 months of service to Beckley.

But after a strong start, with 1,482 enplanements from October to December 2016, the numbers dropped in the first quarter of 2017 with multiple cancellations, many due to maintenance issues. Since then, the Via’s reliability has ebbed and flowed, with a 100 percent completion rate in June that airport officials attributed to the service coming up for bid again.

“Isn’t competition great?” said Bill Richardson, president of the Wood County Airport Authority, which oversees the airport’s day-to-day operations.

Over the last 12 months, Via’s completion rate has been 85 percent. The company’s recent bid for a $2.5 million subsidy was based on completing 98 percent of their flights and enplanements doubling, Kelly said.

“As many of you made it blunt to them, myself included, we don’t think they can do that,” he said.

Via and Contour were among six companies bidding for the service, with subsidy projections ranging from $2.2 million to nearly $5 million. Two of the others offered flights on nine-seat planes, while one proposed 19 seats and another a 50-seat jet. The 50-seater had the largest subsidy proposal.

Contour and Via were the only companies to bid under the Alternate EAS program, which Kelly and the authority members prefer.

“It gives us much more leverage because we are the contractor as opposed to the DOT (Department of Transportation),” Kelly said.

That also allows the airport to negotiate with companies, even if they did not submit a formal bid, like Contour.

Kelly said he was contacted by his counterpart in Beckley about working together with Contour.

“That’s how you afford the jet,” he said.

Contour’s bid is expected to be in the neighborhood of Via’s $2.5 million, but Kelly said the final numbers have not been determined. The 36-year-old company deals in aircraft management, charter service, maintenance and sales, as well as providing commercial flights at three airports in California, Georgia and Mississippi.

“We have a long history of strong but sustainable growth,” Chaifetz said. “We see the potential in the market, and we have a track record of going into markets that have had poor service in the past” and raising their numbers.

Kelly said he received positive reviews of Contour from each airport’s manager.

“The reliability factor is astounding,” he said, noting 98.77 to 100 percent rates based on factors the company could control, such as crew and maintenance. For weather, airport closures and other factors they could not, the rates were 97.45 to 100 percent.

Authority members said they were impressed after recent meetings with Contour officials locally.

One negative is the company’s lack of an interline agreement with American Airlines, which has a hub in Charlotte. The agreement, like the one secured by Via in February, would allow passengers to book flights from the local airport to destinations where American flies out of Charlotte, as well as check their bags once instead of rechecking them before catching a connecting flight.

Kelly said Contour officials assured him and Beckley they would pursue an interline, and it’s not expected to take as long as Via’s did, due to complications beyond Via’s control.

“I just hate for us to take another step back in that process for our paying customers,” said authority member Jill Parsons, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley.

“I agree with that, but there’s an 85 percent completion rate,” authority member David Hines said. “It (doesn’t) make any difference with the baggage if you’re not going to get there.”

Kelly said he must notify the Department of Transportation of the authority’s recommendation by July 20.

Original article  ➤

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