Early Texas Flight Schedule with Continental Up in the Air

Feb. 16, 2006
Airport officials in Victoria are doing what they can to persuade Continental Airlines not to cancel an early-morning flight popular with Victoria business travelers.

Feb. 15--Airport officials in Victoria are doing what they can to persuade Continental Airlines not to cancel an early-morning flight popular with Victoria business travelers, said Victoria Regional Airport manager Larry Blackwell.

But the decision is the airline's, he said.

"The airport has absolutely no control over the schedule of the flights," said Blackwell.

Houston-based Continental, the only airline serving Victoria, has told local airport officials it will, effective March 3, shuffle its current schedule for Victoria-Houston flights.

The major part of that shuffling is the cancellation of the popular overnight flight that now arrives in Victoria at 10:29 p.m. and departs at 5:50 a.m. weekdays.

Business travelers use the early flight to get to meetings later in the day in Houston or elsewhere, Blackwell said, adding that the loss of that flight means some businesspeople will have to leave Victoria a day early to get to their appointments.

The reason for the cancellation?

Another airline, American Eagle, has reduced its service at College Station and Continental is moving in there to fill the gap -- and will use the aircraft that is now dedicated to Victoria's overnight flight to do so, Blackwell said.

"Continental is a business and they're going to put their airplane where they think they can make the most money," he said. "They think they can do better in College Station than they do here."

But Blackwell said the Victoria County Airport Commission, which oversees the county-owned Victoria Regional, has been busily working to influence Continental to reconsider the change.

An aviation-consulting firm, the Boyd Group of Evergreen, Colo., was contracted to work on Victoria Regional's behalf in an attempt to restore the overnight flight.

Blackwell said the first step was to approach the federal official who oversees the Essential Air Service, a program that pays subsidies to a Continental subcontractor to ensure that Victoria-area residents retain access to the nation's air transportation system.

Virginia-based Colgan Air gets a federal subsidy of $510,000 annually to provide flights under Continental Airline's Continental Connection banner.

The EAS program official in Washington, D.C., was asked whether the March 3 schedule change might be in violation of the federal contract under which subsidies are paid for Victoria flights.

The EAS official then went to Continental's governmental affairs representative in D.C., who in turn took the matter up with Continental's Houston headquarters, said Blackwell.

Karen Zachary, Continental Airline's managing director of strategic planning, said Tuesday it was never determined that the airline was in violation of the contract, which she described as very vague.

But, Zachary said, the airline did agreed to improve the March 3 flight schedule for Victoria.

Blackwell said Victoria Regional was notified by Continental last Friday that the revamped schedule beginning March 3 would be readjusted again as of May 3.

While the May 3 adjustment doesn't include the reinstatement of the sought-after overnight flight, it does include another positive change, Blackwell said.

That change puts the second daily flight arriving in Victoria at 4:30 p.m. instead of 1:50 p.m. The flight's new departure time from Victoria will be 4:55 p.m. rather than 2:05 p.m.

The change is a positive one because it puts more space between the flight times -- Victoria's first flight of the day will be around 10 a.m. -- and because it will allow riders on later flights connecting into Houston from other cities to catch a same-day hop to Victoria, Blackwell said.

He said local officials will continue to work with Continental in hopes of bringing back the overnight flight.

Blackwell said the Boyd Group was hired last November by the Airport Commission to prepare a report on the airport's potential as a customer base, the advantages to passengers of using Victoria Regional rather than other airports, as well as what can be done to increase ridership at Victoria Regional.

He said the plan is to take the report, due in the coming weeks, to Continental to make a case for the reinstatement of Victoria's overnight flight.

Blackwell said frequent fliers can help in that effort by signing a petition available at the airport terminal calling for the reinstatement of the overnight flight.

Blackwell said Victoria residents can also call Continental at 1-800-WeCare2 to express their dissatisfaction with the cancellation.

Ridership in Victoria has been 800 to 1,000 outbound passengers per month. "We're afraid that's going to drop off with the schedule change," said Blackwell.

Continental's Zachary was asked what it would take for the airline to reinstate the overnight flight. She said there is no definitive answer to that question.

"We have to put our fixed number of assets where they're going to do the best," she said.

Ever-changing market factors, including the airline's variable network of flights and schedules, seasonality, shifts in business flying, costs, revenues and the other dynamics that impact the airline business, are all considered in determining where the planes will be placed, she said.

"Nothing is ever static in the airline business," Zachary said, adding that Continental wants Victoria's air service to be a success.

"We want Victoria to work. If it doesn't work for the them, it eventually doesn't work for us," said Zachary.

Blackwell said as long as the federal EAS program is subsidizing flights, Victoria Regional will continue to have airline service.

But because Congressional budget cuts threaten the EAS program each year, it would be preferable if Victoria's air service were self-supporting, as it was prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In 2003, declining ridership led longtime Victoria carrier Continental Express to cease its flights to Victoria. Flights since then have been EAS subsidized.

Blackwell said profitability will return only after riders return to using the service in greater numbers -- and he issued a plea for residents to do so.

"All I ask is that people fly Victoria first. Don't listen to those who say it's too expensive or too this or too that."

He said the airport offers free parking, convenient check-in and is making plans to reopen its terminal restaurant as well as a gift shop.

To boost safety, airport officials are also working to put the airfield's non-functioning control tower back into operation and are building a new runway-side fire station.

"We're working very hard to develop our air service," said Blackwell. "Continental will put more flights here and give us better times -- if we'll fly."