Airport advisory board prefers Boutique

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

McCOOK, Neb. -- City leaders hope a new airline can reverse the decreasing trend in commercial passenger counts facing McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport in recent years. The Airport Advisory Commission unanimously supported awarding the bid for essential air service at McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport to Boutique Air, Monday afternoon, after reviewing proposals from three airlines.

Boutique Air received glowing reviews from airport staff working with them in Alliance, Nebraska.

"They said the pilots were nothing short of outstanding," said Public Works Director Kyle Potthoff while recapping his findings to the advisory commission.

Staff members at the Alliance airport said the airline experienced minor growing pains after taking over commercial air service but told Potthoff, "if anything, they are running ahead of schedule."

Potthoff said he was also encouraged by reports the airline was willing to add flights if passenger counts warranted and worked with the airport to achieve the most efficient flight schedule. Boutique also hinted at the possibility of charter service from McCook to eastern Nebraska in addition to the daily flights to Denver, Colorado, according to Potthoff.

The commission's recommendation will now go to the McCook City Council during a meeting scheduled on Dec. 7, with a recommendation due from City Council to the Department of Transportation by Dec. 17. The air service contract between the airport and Great Lakes does not expire until June of 2016, although Boutique Air's proposal indicates the airline could begin service 60-90 days after selection as the EAS carrier for McCook.

The commission reviewed proposals received from Boutique Air, Aerodynamics Inc. and Great Lakes Aviation. All three airlines proposed two-round trip daily flights to Denver with fares less than $100 one-way.

City Manager Nate Schneider said the city was excited to have three separate bids although he admitted to having anxiety related to the bid from Great Lakes. Great Lakes is the current commercial air service provider at the McCook airport and has been for several years.

Schneider said inconsistent service has led him to believe it's probably time to move in a different direction. He said city staff reached out to Great Lakes in recent months, stemming from concerns raised by the Airport Advisory Commission, and he didn't believe they even received a response from the airline.

Commission members seemed to agree it was time for a change and indicated it was difficult to trust portions of the Great Lakes proposal given the airline's service level and ticket prices in recent years.

Schneider said both the ADI and Boutique bids were viable options, although, he said the ADI bid may be unrealistic given the expense involved and lack of time for budgeting and research.

McCook is a Part 139 Class 3 airport and would need to meet requirements of a Class 2 airport, and possibly a Class 1, to accommodate the 50-passenger regional jet proposed by ADI, according to city staff. The change would require the purchase of a larger crash truck for the airport as well as additional emergency response staff stationed at the airport on a regular basis, according to McCook Fire Chief Marc Harpham.

Harpham estimated the new crash truck to cost $750,000 and said the additional staff stemmed from a 3-minute response time requirement for Class 1 airports. He said there were other expenses to consider as well, including $48,000 in foam and dry chemicals that would be required.

Schneider said grant funding could be available that would offset the expense of a crash truck but there wasn't time to research those options before a decision needed to be made. He also said the Environmental Protection Agency would require an environmental study related to noise levels as part of the classification change, which Public Works Director Kyle Potthoff estimated to cost another $45,000. Schneider also said such a change might necessitate the hiring of an airport manager.

A variety of obstacles made the ADI bid difficult to envision at this point-in-time, said Schneider, adding it could be something to consider in the future. Airport Advisory Commission President Richard Stull voiced his agreement. Stull said he liked the proposal but didn't think the city was prepared to undertake the cost at this time.

Schneider said the only calls he had received from area residents were in support of going with the ADI passenger jet service, which he said he had no problem looking at for the future.

"We need a couple of years to even plan and make sure it's feasible. A twenty day decision just seems foolish to me," said Schneider. Schneider also raised concerns relating to the 2-year nature of the contract and possibility of the city investing in the airport only to have ADI decide the contract wasn't worth renewing.

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