Airport authority recommends switching airlines in Johnstown

The John Murtha Johnstown Cambria County Airport Authority has voted unanimously to recommend a proposal from Boutique Air to operate flights for the next two years. (WJAC)

RICHLAND TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WJAC) -- A new airline could be coming to Johnstown.

The John Murtha Johnstown Cambria County Airport Authority has voted unanimously to recommend a proposal from Boutique Air to operate flights for the next two years.

Currently, Southern Airways Express operates six flights a day, but airport officials say its past track record is much of why the airport could potentially lose its essential air service program subsidy.

Airport manager Thomas Keyes says the airport authority thoroughly considered and carefully compared both proposals from Boutique and Southern, but ultimately is doing what's best for passengers in the county.

Keyes says when he first started last summer, the airport was in violation of a subsidy cap requirement of $200 per passenger and Keyes had to draft a waiver letter to stay in the essential air service subsidy program.

“Our enplanements during that waiver period had gone down 3 1/2 percent," Keyes said.

He had to submit another waiver this year.

“This was for fiscal (year) 2017, during which we had an additional 20 percent decrease in enplanements,” Keyes said.

Keyes says during fiscal year 2017, a third of the flights were canceled and half didn't go out on time.

Starting last November, he says, performance began to normalize.

"The fact that Southern was able to improve their operation did not negate fiscal '17, during which we were down another 20 percent in enplanements," Keyes said.

That's much of the reason the airport authority board says it unanimously recommended a proposal from Boutique Air to operate future flights.

Keyes says in many respects, the proposals were similar, but it boils down to offering the best possible service for passengers.

"The second overarching goal is to reach sustained compliance with the eligibility criteria set forth by the essential air service (program) so that we can continue to receive that subsidy," Keyes said.

Right now, Southern Airways Express has 38 round-trip flights a week.

A proposal from Boutique Air would have two fewer flights and be about a half-million dollars more expensive.

However, a 30-flight option matched the subsidy amount at about $3.1 million.

Keyes says they will ask the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 36, but if not, would elect for the 30 round-tripflights per week.

Last week it was announced that southern airways express had come to an interline agreement with American Airlines for DuBois, Altoona and Johnstown.

"Passengers in Cambria County and the surrounding communities that we serve want that convenience but they require reliability," Keyes said.

He says Boutique Air will be able to offer that reliability.

“Boutique had an interline agreement with United and that was upgraded to a codeshare agreement, which offers everything that an interline agreement has plus more,” Keyes said.

The proposal is for Pittsburgh and BWI, but the airport authority is closely considering switching the hub back to Dulles International Airport in Virginia to take advantage of the big United hub there.

Southern Airways Express Chief Commercial Officer Mark Cestari doesn't agree with the decision. He says his company operates planes with nine passengers per plane, while Boutique would only have eight.

"The action they took yesterday is very dubious because what they should be doing is selecting the lowest cost carrier that's providing the maximum number of seats," Cestari said.

But the CEO of Boutique Air, Shawn Simpson, says they favor quality of operation, sometimes meaning fewer flights, but more passengers overall.

"If the flights in Johnstown were 66 percent full with Southern, we would not be having this conversation," Simpson said.

Cestari says a lot of the problems they had were due to a nationwide pilot shortage and weather cancellations out of their control.

"We own the subpar performance in 2017. We're not trying to run away from it,” Cestari said. “We're proud of the fact that unlike three of our contemporaries, we survived that year. And we're thriving now."

Boutique operates in 17 essential air service communities right now and Simpson says one of their specialties is coming in when things aren't going well.

"The average increase across all of our communities that we've been able to achieve is about 2.5 times more traffic." Simpson said.

"We have four more months to service the city,” Cestari said. “We plan to do so honorably and we'll live with -- we'll respect the commission’s decision even though we disagree with it."

The airport authority expects to hear back from the federal Department of Transportation later this summer.

If approved, the new airline would go into effect Oct. 1.

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