Big Sky halts flights to Midway ; Airport official blames lack of customers for suspension

It has become a year of lose one, gain one for airline service at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport.

Less than two weeks after announcing nonstop jet service to Las Vegas would start in August, the airport has lost flights to Midway Airport in Chicago. Big Sky Airlines suspended flights over the weekend, a little more than six months after launching what turned out to be a heavily subsidized route.

Springfield Airport Authority board chairman Frank Vala said Tuesday that loss of the flights to Midway did not come as a surprise because the carrier struggled almost from the start. Big Sky had operated three flights daily.

"The ridership was poor. It didn't even come close to meeting our expectations," said Vala.

Loss of Big Sky leaves the Springfield airport with United Express flights to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Airport officials are hoping for resumption of St. Louis service as early as next month.

Airport officials estimated it cost $150,000 to $160,000 a month to subsidize Big Sky service that started in December. Despite a fare reduction in March, there have been only three or four passengers on some flights of the 19-passenger aircraft operated by Big Sky.

Vala said the carrier has agreed to refund tickets, but that the sudden suspension also violated an agreement to provide at least 60 days' notice.

"We are extremely disappointed in how they handled this because we honored our part 100 percent," he said.

Airport officials are trying to make alternative travel arrangements for customers holding Big Sky tickets.

Meanwhile, the airport is awaiting word on the resumption of St. Louis service lost when RegionsAir shut down in early March. The Tennessee-based carrier, which operated as AmericanConnection, ended flights after less than a year.

Great Lakes Airlines has agreed to four flights daily, also as AmericanConnection, but has not set a specific startup date. The carrier also has agreed to pick up Quincy, Decatur and Marion routes previously served by RegionsAir.

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., released a letter to Great Lakes executives urging them to begin service as soon as possible.

"Passengers in downstate Illinois have already experienced more than their fair share of service disruptions and inconvenience, and it is time they are given the opportunity to fly," Durbin said in the letter.

Great Lakes was awarded contracts for Marion, Quincy and Decatur service through a federal "essential air service" program that guarantees minimal service for smaller airports. Great Lakes executives said recently they are trying to assemble the additional pilots and aircraft to begin the flights.

Springfield airport executive director Mark Hanna said a weekly conference call was held with Great Lakes representatives Tuesday, and he believes the carrier is working as quickly as possible.

"There is no firm date for reinstatement of service to St. Louis. They are genuinely working to find a solution for that, to find the resources and the pilots to make it happen," said Hanna.

The local airport picked up nonstop jet service to Washington, D.C., on United Express in April, and last month announced Allegiant Air would start two nonstop jet flights between Springfield and Las Vegas in August.

Hanna said, while airport officials are disappointed Big Sky Airlines did not work out, the loss of the flights is the latest example of just how competitive the industry has become for regional commuter carriers.

"It's really a tough industry right now," said Hanna, though he said the airport would not give up on the Midway route.

"When we had service to Meigs Field (in Chicago) and Midway in the past, it's been fairly well received," he said.

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