Sunday, August 23, 2020

Incumbent airliner 'surprised' Johnstown (KJST) airport board is seeking new horizons

JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania (WJAC) — Since taking off out of the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport nearly two years ago, Boutique Air has vastly improved air traffic and added 20 jobs through a maintenance facility at the airport.

"We have done a substantially better job," said Shawn Simpson, CEO of Boutique Air. "We’ve grown enplanements tremendously, doubling the traffic that was there previously."

Which is why it came as a surprise to Simpson that his airliner was not recommended by the airport’s board to keep the federal subsidy necessary to keep commercial flights going.

"We just never suspected we wouldn’t get full support," Simpson said. "Johnstown just seemed like a good fit."

Last year with Boutique, Johnstown saw more passengers fly out of the airport than in any year since 2012.

But the airport board made it known earlier this month, they recommend SkyWest Airlines be awarded the federal Essential Air Service program subsidy to serve Johnstown.

Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority Chairman James Loncella said it came down to dollars and cents.

"There’s no doubt they have improved the numbers over the previous carrier Southern Airways," Loncella said. "But as good as it is, it’s not enough."

That’s because the EAS, which helps small communities maintain air connections with major airports, requires their subsidy payments not exceed $200 per passenger or the airport risks being removed from the program.

"Our ability to remain in the EAS program has been continually at risk and we’ve been very, very nervous about that," Loncella said.

Loncella says SkyWest’s bid goes under that level, while Boutique, even though they added flights beyond the EAS requirements due to their passenger success, has not.

While the EAS has previously given waivers to Johnstown, the board feels they may not get another one if things don’t improve even more.

"There is nothing we can say to take the edge off of (losing jobs)," Loncella said. "It is going to directly affect people and it is very distressing to us, but it is even more distressing to lose our ability to remain in the entire program."

But Boutique’s CEO thinks there is another allure to SkyWest, a return of 50-passenger regional jets, compared to the eight-seater turboprops Boutique uses.

Simpson questions if there is enough demand for SkyWest’s 12 United Airlines branded round-trip flights per week to Washington and Chicago, compared to the 30 round-trip flights Boutique has been doing to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, which includes agreements with both United and American Airlines to allow for easy connections.

"The idea of having flights from a small town like Johnstown to Chicago seems like there wouldn’t be much demand for it," Simpson said. "If there really is this interest in having bigger planes in Johnstown, we would love to be apart of it."

The board’s recommendation though cites that the airport has never been under the federal threshold since the last time Johnstown had regional jets here.

But that vote has come under question, after questions were raised by community activist John Debartola that their vote was done before any public comment, therefore potentially violating state Sunshine Laws. To avoid any problems with that, the board will re-vote on the recommendation as part of their regular monthly meeting Tuesday at 3:30 PM.

Boutique hopes that given their success, their investment in a maintenance facility in Johnstown that would go away if they leave, and their plans for the future, that the board will reconsider.

"We want to make Johnstown our home," Simpson said. "I think there is general agreement the airport board made a misstep and they are reevaluating what they’ve done."

A spokesperson for SkyWest Airlines said in a statement to 6 News, "SkyWest understands how important it is for communities to have access to convenient, reliable air service, and we welcome the opportunity to provide air service to the Johnstown community with daily United Express flights to both Chicago and Washington, D.C."

The U.S. Department of Transportation will make the final approval on what plan they will accept for the EAS subsidy.

Original article and video ➤

1 comment:

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