Split advisory board favors new carrier
McCOOK, Nebraska -- After a presentation by the current airline serving McCook, the airport advisory commission voted 4-3 Friday to recommend another airline using smaller planes to the McCook City Council.
Meeting Monday, the council is under no obligation to follow the commission's recommendation in indicating its preference to the U.S. Department of Transportation for McCook's Essential Air Service provider.
Meeting at Heritage Senior Center, the McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport Advisory Commission first heard a presentation by Monica Taylor of Cheyenne, Wyoming, director of sales and marketing for Great Lakes Airlines.
She recounted the birth of the Essential Air Service subsidy during the 1978 deregulation of airline service, and explained how her airline was recently "the last guy standing" after 35 small communities lost air service with the bankruptcy of airlines like Mesa Airlines, Great Lakes' predecessor in McCook.
Great Lakes has closed its St. Louis hub, moving two planes based there to Denver, and plans to be out of the Kansas City market soon, freeing up two more planes for Denver, she said, enabling the airline to improve its service, she said.
An Essential Air Service bid is basically a profit and loss statement, she explained, which in Great Lakes' case will show a $1.7 million loss to serve McCook. If chosen to continue to provide service here, she said, taxpayers will kick in that amount plus 5 percent to help the airline turn a profit.
"It's a huge gamble," Taylor said. "We're only paid if we operate," she added, which in McCook's case should be two flights daily Monday through Friday, and two on the weekends.
Over the last six months, Great Lakes has canceled 44 of 537 flights to McCook for "controllable" reasons like maintenance or crew shortages, as well 38 flights canceled because of bad weather.
Advisory commission member Richard Stull repeatedly urged Great Lakes to find ways to fly more passengers, saying he feared a time when the EAS subsidy will be lost because of the high cost per passenger.
Others, such as travel agent Ann Barger and commission member Doug Skiles urged Taylor to tell her airline it needed to offer lower fares for groups, or lower fares for shorter advanced notice. Fares are about $300 one-way for "walk up passengers" or $100 for 21 days advanced booking.
City manager Kurt Fritsch said he had called seven airports regarding the service provided by SeaPort Airlines, which is also bidding for the McCook route, and received mostly glowing reports.
Pendleton, Oregon, for example, reported that the new airline was very helpful in promoting travel from the local airport, and a Harrison, Arkansas, official said choosing SeaPort "was the best move we've made in 21 years in business." The company was active in the local chamber of commerce and advertised their service heavily, the Arkansas official reported.
Great Lakes, on the other hand, has virtually no advertising budget, according to its representative, and works with local interests through promotions like free tickets.
Despite the criticism, "we are grateful Great Lakes stepped in when Mesa went bankrupt," Fritsch said.
Strikes against SeaPort during Friday's discussion included its use of single-engine, nine passenger planes instead of Great Lakes' 19-passenger twin-engine craft, and the fact that McCook would lose six Transportation Security Administration jobs and $25,000 in TSA rent at the airport terminal building if SeaPort is selected, because TSA screening is not required on airliners its size.
While at least two advisory commission members said they personally favored SeaPort, they were afraid some passengers might be reluctant to fly on a single-engine plane, regardless of the turboprop's history of reliability.
During her presentation, Taylor said airports that had opted for single-engine EAS providers "had trouble getting twin-engines back."
Barger said the SeaPort passengers would need at least 90 minutes between flights after arriving at Denver International Airport, and would have to buy their own tickets on connecting flights and pay penalties if a flight were late.
Stull said he didn't believe Great Lakes had a viable plan for reaching even the number of passengers it budgeted for in its current EAS bid. The six more flights SeaPort plans to offer each week would make up for the smaller planes and add convenience, he said.
The motion by Stull to recommend SeaPort for the McCook route was seconded by Mike Kugler, and passed 4-3 on a secret ballot.
It was noted after the vote that the McCook City Council is free to reject the advisory board's recommendation, as it did when it renamed McCook Municipal Airport in honor of Sen. Ben Nelson.