Lack of airline is being felt: City has been without service for 4 months

Jul. 5--Sunday will mark four months without commercial air service in Owensboro. And the end isn't yet in sight.

"We're losing thousands of dollars every month," said Tim Bradshaw, manager of Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport. "We're losing money from rent, landing fees, fuel sales and rental cars."

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.

It will operate as Delta Connection out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

The contract, which was to have begun on June 1 and run through May 31, 2009, provides Big Sky with an annual subsidy of $3.25 million.

But the airline still isn't able to start serving any of those cities.

"It's going to be late summer," Fred deLeeuw, Big Sky president, said in May.

Summer ends Sept. 23.

"There is just a tremendous pilot shortage right now," Bradshaw said. "Big Sky had a job fair for pilots in St. Louis and in Cincinnati. And one pilot showed up."

The problem for small airlines, where experienced pilots are moving up to the major carriers, is compounded by reservists being called up for military pilot duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said.

All three cities covered by the contract have been without air service since March 8 when RegionsAir, which had served Owensboro since 2001, was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration over pilot training issues.

RegionsAir officially closed its doors in late May.

Bradshaw is hoping passengers will return to the airport once service is restored.

The Cincinnati airport offers nonstop service to 111 cities with 3,150 weekly flights. International flights also go to London, Paris and Frankfurt, Germany, he said.

Flights from Owensboro to Cincinnati are expected to take the same amount of time as RegionsAir's old flights to St. Louis -- about 45 minutes.

In the meantime, the airport is still negotiating with the FAA for permission to open its new $12 million runway expansion.

The north-south runway has been lengthened from 6,500 feet to 8,000.

All that remains to be done is moving the instrument landing system, Bradshaw said.

But the FAA has issues with power lines south of the runway.

The lines are "close to half a mile from the runway," Bradshaw said earlier. "They've been lowered to 25 feet off the ground. The approach lights are higher than the power lines."

Burying 400 feet of power lines would cost $1 million, he said.

The longer runway is designed to attract 757s, which Bradshaw calls "the standard bearer of the cargo industry."

The board is trying to attract cargo operations.

Since there are no 757s using the airport now, Bradshaw said the airport could open the new runway and let aircraft use all 8,000 feet to take off heading north.

But only 6,500 feet of it can be used for southerly takeoffs.

"Landing is not the problem" for large aircraft, he said. "But they need more room to take off."

The airport is talking to one potential customer whose planes would need the full 8,000 feet, Bradshaw said.

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