Four airlines presented business pitches to residents and community leaders on Tuesday to become Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport’s next Essential Air Service (EAS) carrier.
The EAS program is subsidized by the federal government through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation. EAS air carriers differ from private airlines such as Allegiant, which will continue its Owensboro-to-Orlando flights as usual.
Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport’s current EAS carrier is Cape Air, whose contract is set to expire.
On Tuesday, Cape Air along with three new EAS air carriers offered different proposals, destinations and price points to be considered by those in attendance, who ranked the airlines based on their presentations.
Air Choice One, based in St. Louis, offered round-trip flights to Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville.
“We’ve been interested in Owensboro since 2007,” said Choice One CEO Shane Storz.
Three proposal options were presented by Air Choice One, the first involving Chicago and St. Louis as destinations, with 21 round-trip flights made per week — 14 to Chicago and seven to St. Louis. The second proposal offered 21 weekly round-trip flights from Owensboro to Chicago only, while the third proposal offered flights to Chicago (13 round-trip per week) and Nashville (eight round-trip flights per week).
Flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport will be more expensive than the others, but in comparing the same flight to those in the surrounding area, Storz said Evansville’s Chicago flight times were not only earlier than Owensboro’s would be (5:43 a.m. compared to 7 a.m.), but more expensive as well.
Air Choice One would offer nine-seat flights for passengers and could offer as many as 19,656 flights per year through its proposal. Flight times to St. Louis would be around 45 minutes while Chicago flights would take around 80 minutes.
Boutique Air Service CEO Sean Simpson said his airline would offer EAS flights to St. Louis, Atlanta and Nashville, with the possibility of a Chicago flight at some point.
Boutique offered five flight proposals, including three round-trip flights per day to St. Louis only, 21 weekly round-trip flights to both Atlanta (7 flights per week) and St. Louis (14 per week), Nashville round-trip flights only, round-trip flights to Nashville and Atlanta and, finally, round-trip flights to Chicago only.
Each of Boutique’s planes offer leather, reclining seats and would offer eight to nine seats per flight, Simpson said.
“Cape Air — their planes are old,” he said. “They’re working on getting new ones, but they’re still slow and unpressurized. Pressurized planes fly faster and they’re safer against inclement weather.”
Cape Air has been serving Owensboro since 2011. Senior Vice President of Planning Andrew Bonney said 2018 was Owensboro’s best year flying through Cape Air.
“We interline with all the legacy airlines, including Delta, Jetblue Airways, American Airlines and Alaskan Airlines,” Bonney said.
Cape Air would be retaining its St. Louis flights to and from Owensboro, but would be adding Nashville to two of their proposals. The first proposal includes 21 flights to St. Louis per week, while the second proposal offers 14 St. Louis flights per week and seven to Nashville. The third option includes seven flights to St. Louis and 14 Nashville flights per week.
Even more, Cape Air has designed a brand new fleet of Tecnam P2012 Traveller planes specifically for Owensboro’s airport, Bonney said. The planes would also feature nine seats for passengers. Cape Air would offer the lowest subsidy cost ($1.99 million) of all four carriers, as well as a new ticket office in downtown Owensboro.
“This is the first new purpose-designed commuter aircraft in 40 years,” Bonney said. “We have the lowest fares. We’re currently averaging $38 per flight in this market. Our planes and pilots are based in Owensboro.”
The last proposal came from Southern Airways Express, which Founder and CEO Stan Little described as the fastest-growing airline in the United States.
Little went into great detail about the nationwide pilot shortage, which hit an all-time low in 2017 and is expected to hit its worst numbers by 2023. Part of Southern Airways’ planning process has been to make sure they always have enough pilots to see flights through.
“Our goal has always been to be the last man standing,” Little said. “Owensboro is so important to us because you’re on the outer banks of our gulf region. This would be natural growth for us.”
Southern Airways would offer flights to St. Louis (21 per week) or to Chicago, but recommended the airport’s board of directors to consider the St. Louis option first, offering a deal that would include trips from St. Louis to Memphis.
“This worked really well for us in the past — we’d offer free tickets from Owensboro to St. Louis if you buy a ticket from St. Louis to Memphis,” Little said.
“It’s always fantastic for our community to have more options,” said Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Candace Brake. “Nashville’s connected with the world now and they’re adding new international flights daily, and that would be a huge win for the community. People do a lot of business in the Nashville area and there’s a cool synergy there with a Nashville flight.”
Rob Barnett started his job as director of the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport with the goal to give Owensboro residents more chances for travel.
“There are a lot of opportunities, and that’s what attracted me to Owensboro — the support from the Department of Transportation, the support of the EAS program — all the dots are connected, all the opportunities are available,” Barnett said. “We need to maximize exposure of the airport, put Owensboro on the radar.”
With four different airline options, Barnett said the airport’s board of directors will look over the community’s input from the public forum. They will then make a recommendation to make to the DOT, which will have final say in Owensboro’s next EAS carrier. Recommendations should be made over the next couple of weeks, he said.
“Owensboro, to me, is a great place with a lot of amenities and an essential air service program that most communities don’t have the opportunity to participate in,” Barnett said. “I like more options. I like more destinations, and I like those destinations to be connecting hubs, if you will. I would like to see Owensboro with between 200 and 280 destinations to connect to.”