Airline service to resume Nov. 18: Big Sky's flight will end 8-month drought at Owensboro airport

Sep. 19--Montana-based Big Sky Airlines said Tuesday that it will begin service to the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport on Nov. 18.

That's the Sunday before Thanksgiving -- and it's eight months and 10 days after RegionsAir flew out of Owensboro for the last time, ending passenger service to the city.

"That's the beginning of the holiday travel season," said Tim Bradshaw, airport manager. "That's a busy time for us. This is good news."

Fred deLeeuw, Big Sky president, said his company will begin air service to the city with one flight a day -- operating as Delta Connection out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

By mid-December, he said, a second flight will be added on weekdays.

Big Sky will offer promotional discounts on flights when it begins service to the city, deLeeuw said. After that, fares here will be the same as Delta service from Evansville, he said.

"There's no charge to park in Owensboro," deLeeuw said. "And you save the gas to drive to Evansville. The key to good passenger loads is getting the fares right."

RegionsAir, a Tennessee-based company that had served Owensboro since 2001, was shut down by the Federal Aviation Administration on March 8 over pilot training issues.

It has not resumed operations.

On March 9, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a two-year contract to Big Sky Airlines of Billings, Mont., to serve Owensboro; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; and Jackson, Tenn.

The contract, which began June 1 and runs through May 31, 2009, provides Big Sky with an annual subsidy of $3.25 million.

But Big Sky wasn't able to start the service June 1.

First reports said air service to Cincinnati would begin in late summer.

Then, it was late October.

But deLeeuw said the Nov. 18 date is firm.

The problem, he said, has been finding enough pilots.

About the time Big Sky began trying to hire pilots, major airlines started hiring large numbers of pilots for the first time in years, deLeeuw said.

A large number of pilots who are also in the military reserves have been called up for action in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

And baby boomer pilots are beginning to turn 60 and having to retire, deLeeuw said.

The airline needs a dozen or so pilots per plane because the FAA limits the amount of time pilots can spend in the cockpit.

Big Sky currently has 13 planes and 120 pilots, deLeeuw said.

He expects to have 18 planes by the end of the next quarter.

Big Sky will use a 19-seat Raytheon Beechcraft-1900 twin turbo-prop for the flights to Cincinnati.

Flights will take 45 minutes to an hour, deLeeuw said.

Delta will add Owensboro to its booking system within the next couple of weeks, he said.

Delta offers more than 400 flights to 130 destinations a day out of Cincinnati, deLeeuw said.

Air service cannot resume too soon for airport officials.

The lack of service affects "all of our revenue," Bradshaw said in May. "Fuel sales, landing fees, counter rent, baggage carousel rent -- even funding for things like the control tower are affected. It hurts Owensboro, too, because people are trying to get here and being told there is no air service."

But deLeeuw said he's planning a trip to Owensboro this fall to assure the community that air service is on the way.

"We're excited to be coming to Owensboro," he said.

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