SOUTH BEND - Officials are hopeful that a new air service connecting South Bend to Indianapolis and Evansville will provide a lift to the Michiana business community.
The inaugural flight of Cape Air's new service took off early Tuesday from South Bend Regional Airport and returned about 2:30 p.m. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The flight was the culmination of years of work involving officials in South Bend and Evansville.
Similar service was briefly provided by Chicago Express in 2005, but it disappeared when ATA Airlines went bankrupt.
But Robert H. Working, manager of the Evansville airport, kept pursuing the goal with help from John Schalliol, executive director of the South Bend airport, and others.
Eventually, they found an independent carrier with considerable experience based in Hyannis, Mass., called Cape Air.
The company, which has been around since 1989, initially started providing service between Provincetown, Mass., and Boston.
The service took off, and Cape Air now has about 500 employees, a fleet of more than 50 aircraft and routes in New England, South Florida, the Caribbean and Micronesia.
The two airports have each committed $500,000, and the Department of Transportation has provided a match of $1 million to help get the service up and running.
Basically, the money is being used to pay for the flights. Ticket proceeds will go back to the airports, Schalliol explained.
In other words, the two airports are taking a calculated gamble that the service will work.
So who's going to use the service?
Businesses and people with dealings in either Indianapolis or Evansville might be interested in the considerable time savings in the flights, said Schalliol.
Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool, for example, has significant operations in Evansville, and the former St. Joseph Capital Bank of Mishawaka became part of Evansville-based Old National Bancorp early this year.
Accounting and law firms throughout the region have headquarters or offices in Indianapolis. There are many more connections.
By taking a one-hour flight to Indianapolis, an executive could save about two hours each way. The flight to Evansville saves nearly four hours each way, said Schalliol.
And beyond the time savings, the person on the flight will be able to work while en route, said Mark Eagan, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County.
"From an economic perspective, convenience is the biggest factor," said Eagan.
Schalliol said the Cape Air flights also will be hooked into standard commercial service out of Indianapolis, meaning fliers leaving South Bend will be able to connect into air service offered at Indianapolis.
Though there currently are inexpensive start-up ticket offers, Schalliol expects the price to settle in around $100 each way.
A round-trip to Indianapolis will cost about $200; a round-trip to Evansville about $400.
But if you factor in the price of gas, possible stops at restaurants, overnight stays and the time savings, most business customers will find the fares reasonable, Schalliol said.
All of the planes are twin-engine Cessna 402s with nine passenger seats.
Though some will be concerned about flying on a smaller aircraft, Cape Air will match its safety record against any airline, said Dan Wolf, president and chief executive of the airline.
Besides, the use of smaller aircraft is allowing Cape Air to offer five daily flights and three flights on Saturdays and Sundays to accommodate business travelers.
Staff writer Ed Semmler: esemmler @sbtinfo.com (574) 235-6466
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