Cincinnati is Choice for Hub in EAS Bidding

Mar. 6 -- Goodbye, St. Louis.

Hello, Cincinnati.

If the U.S. Department of Transportation accepts the recommendations of the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport, Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce and city and county governments, it will award the contract for local air service for the next two years to Big Sky Airlines of Billings, Mont.

Big Sky would operate as Delta Connection, linking Owensboro with the Delta hub in northern Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati.

"Air service is very important to local business and industry and after last weekend's unexpected flight cancellations, we know reliable service is crucial," chamber Chairman Nick Cambron said. "Cincinnati is not the preferred hub for everyone, but it offers possibilities and more options than we have now."

A poll of the chamber's 900-plus members recently found that 61 percent preferred service to Nashville, 27 percent to Cincinnati, 11 percent to St. Louis and only 2 percent to Memphis.

But Airport Manager Tim Bradshaw said Nashville isn't really an option.

Six cities are in the subsidized air service package that four airlines are bidding on. The DOT will either award all six as a package or split it 3-3, Bradshaw said.

"They have told us that none of the other five airports under this contract prefer going to Nashville," Cambron said. "That makes it highly unlikely the DOT would choose Nashville. That's unfortunate for us, but it's reality under the multi-city subsidized service."

Bradshaw said he believes that Jackson, Tenn., and Cape Girardeau, Mo., will choose the Cincinnati option. Owensboro could make a three-city package with them, he said.

Burlington, Iowa, is wanting service to either Kansas City, Mo., or Chicago.

And Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Marion/Herrin, Ill., are wanting to stay with St. Louis but switch to Great Lakes Airlines, he said.

Tennessee-based RegionsAir has served Owensboro since 2001, but the airline has been having problems in recent months.

Bradshaw said 14 flights to St. Louis -- the equivalent of seven days of service -- were canceled here last month.

And Saturday, the airline stopped flying for two days because its pilots had to be retrained by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Flights to Owensboro resumed Monday morning for the first time since Friday. "The debacle this weekend is hurting our image," Bradshaw said. "People want reliable service."

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

St. Louis, Bradshaw said, offers 1,800 weekly flights to 62 cities.

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

"It takes that long to drive to Evansville," Bradshaw said.

Robert J. Gilles, airport chairman, said the vote for Cincinnati was unanimous.

"A lot of people coming to Owensboro come from the Northeast," said Joe Lowe, an airport board member. "But even if you're going south or west, there are more flight options in Cincinnati."

Bradshaw said passengers complain about having to wait up to four hours for some flights in St. Louis.

"Big Sky told us their prices will be comparable to Delta Connection flights from Evansville to Cincinnati," he said.

The airline's proposal says it will offer special fares of $80 to Cincinnati -- and will drop that to $60 for the first 90 days.

Big Sky is also offering bulk pricing discounts for businesses that purchase 100 or more flights.

The chamber said it found that 38 percent of those surveyed are members of Delta's frequent-flyer program. Forty-four percent had American Airlines' frequent-flyer miles.

"Overall, flying to Cincinnati would be convenient for many people and will hopefully attract more people to use our local airport," Cambron said. "Ultimately, it's most important that we maintain commercial flight service here."

The two-year contract is scheduled to begin June 1. The DOT is expected to make its decision in April.

Bradshaw said the community's recommendations will be sent to Washington, D.C., today.

"We didn't get what we asked for last time," he said. "And we may not this time, but we're going to try."

In 2005, the community asked the DOT to award the contract to Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group to link Owensboro to either Nashville or Chicago's Midway Airport.

But the agency decided to continue the contract with RegionsAir.

In its bid package this year, RegionsAir acknowledged that it has had problems in recent months.

The statement said: "Unfortunately, the company has had some operational issues in the past few months that have negatively impacted performance, causing an increase in cancellations and delays."

The main reason, the company says, "was unexpected engine removals last summer and fall, compounded with significantly higher fuel costs than anticipated in the current contracts."

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