Four Airlines Bids to Provide EAS Service to Owensboro

Feb. 13 -- Four regional airlines have submitted bids to serve the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport and five other cities for the next two years.

They're vying for a subsidized contract offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Between them, the four are offering air service from Owensboro to St. Louis, Cincinnati, Memphis and Nashville. "I'm very encouraged by these bids," Owensboro airport Manager Tim Bradshaw said Monday.

RegionsAir, a Tennessee-based commuter airline, has had the contract since 2001.

But it has been having problems with canceled flights -- eight in January alone. And airport officials are concerned about the viability of the St. Louis airport.

Also bidding are Mesa Air Group of Phoenix; Big Sky Airlines of Billings, Mont.; and Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyo.

Mesa and Great Lakes also bid for the contract in 2005. Big Sky is a new entry into the bidding.

    The proposals:

Mesa says its "fleet of 198 aircraft performs more than 1,200 departures to 170 cities in 46 states, the District of Columbia, the Bahamas and Mexico."

Big Sky primarily serves markets from Oregon to Colorado, but it recently added service between Springfield, Ill., and Chicago's Midway Airport.

Great Lakes says it serves 39 airports in nine states. But the easternmost city it currently serves is Brookings, S.D.

Acknowledges problems

In its bid package, RegionsAir acknowledges its recent problems.

"In previous years, RegionsAir has provided exceptional service to these communities, averaging in excess of a 97 percent controllable-completion factor and 91 percent on-time departures," it says.

But, the airline says, "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."

It adds that "the company is addressing capital issues with funding from an outside investment group.

The company's Cleveland operation, which further strained resources, is ending this spring."

The bid package says "by early summer, RegionsAir will have sufficient Jetstream aircraft to provide an optimal schedule, including an operational spare aircraft to assure reliability."

It also says the St. Louis airport "has been on an upswing in the past few years with American Airlines increasing flights and adding larger aircraft on existing routes, as well as restoring some service cut in November 2003.

"In the first nine months of 2006, St. Louis Lambert Airport saw a 4.7 percent increase in traffic. American has proven they want to make St. Louis a vital part of their network and RegionsAir is committed to providing a superb level of connecting opportunities to the AA network," the bid package says.

RegionsAir says it has hired a director of sales and marketing to help cities increase passenger and revenue totals. And it said it's working to reduce ticket prices.

Big Sky is proposing options of flights to St. Louis or Cincinnati. Great Lakes and RegionsAir offer only St. Louis flights.

Mesa is proposing service to Memphis, Nashville or St. Louis.

'Code share' needed

Bradshaw said RegionsAir is the only competitor that has code share with the airline it is proposing to serve.

Code share means that passengers need only one ticket to reach their final destination and the airlines handle their luggage all the way through.

Without a code share, a passenger would need two tickets and have to claim and recheck baggage at whichever airport is served. "Code share is crucial," Bradshaw said.

The other three companies, he said, have code share agreements with airlines in other communities that they serve. And their bids say they are working to get it for this contract.

Big Sky is proposing special fares of $80 to either St. Louis or Cincinnati. It says it will drop that to $60 for the first 90 days as a promotional fare.

It also promises EasyFares that "offer travelers the lowest fares up to the day of travel and no advance purchase."

Bradshaw said Cincinnati offers nonstop service to 111 cities with 3,150 weekly flights.

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

He said he's still researching Memphis and Nashville.

The new contract is scheduled to take effect June 1.

The community has 30 days to let the Department of Transportation know its preference for the contract.

Bradshaw said he has a conference call today with airport managers in the other five cities -- Burlington, Iowa; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Jackson, Tenn.; and Marion/Herrin, Ill.

"I don't know if the DOT will do this as a package or split us up," he said. "But we need to know what the other communities are planning to propose."

The final recommendation will be made by the city, county and airport board, Bradshaw said.

But DOT officials will determine who gets the contract.

"We need to make sure that DOT understands our needs," Bradshaw said.

But he said the choices being offered "won't please everybody."

Boardings last year at Owensboro airport were the highest in three years.

RegionsAir reported 4,590 passengers on its flights in 2006 -- up 1,035 from the 3,555 reported in 2005.

But the numbers would have been much higher without the canceled flights.

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