Airport proposes two-year agreement with North Country Sky

MANISTEE COUNTY — The Manistee County Blacker Airport Authority on Wednesday decided to stick with what’s been working in terms of its commercial service.

By a 6-1 vote, authority members approved to send an Alternate Essential Air Service proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the agency ultimately charged with approving the proposed two-year agreement between Blacker and its elected provider, North Country Sky.

“North Country Sky has done a good job,” said authority member Mark Bergstrom. “They seem very willing to be flexible and work with us. … We have that experience with them, and at this point time I believe that they’re still the best option for us.”

North Country Sky is Blacker’s current commercial service provider and has been for the past six years. The parties’ most recent contract, however — a four-year agreement — expires in July.

Throughout January, the authority has been active in the bid process for Essential Air Service at Manistee, devoting a series of meetings to hearing, reviewing and weighing proposals from potential service providers.

North Country Sky, the authority’s “Alternate” Essential Air Service option, joined three standard Essential Air Service providers (Air Choice One, Boutique Air and Great Lakes Aviation) in proposing their services to Blacker.

According to DOT, the Essential Air Service (EAS) program was put into place to guarantee small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before airline deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service.

DOT is mandated to provide eligible EAS communities with access to the National Air Transportation System and is responsible for requesting and approving bids from air service providers for these EAS eligible airports.

In 2012, Blacker Airport was the first in the nation to take advantage of DOT’s “Alternate” Essential Air Service, which, according to DOT, is designed to allow communities to forego their EAS for a prescribed amount of time in exchange for receiving a grant to spend in a variety of ways that might better suit their unique needs.

The Alternate EAS program grants funds directly to the airport authority instead of the air carrier, localizing the recruitment of and agreement with air service providers that would not otherwise meet EAS guidelines. DOT, however, still must approve these Alternate EAS proposals.

North Country Sky’s proposal to Blacker — which will in turn be proposed to DOT for approval — reflects its current service at the airport, generally meaning daily flights to Chicago Midway International Airport with 19- or 30-seat aircraft.

Airport director Barry Lind provided side-by-side comparisons of all four proposals to authority during Monday’s final review.

Through North Country Sky, the airport will see roughly 820 annual flights totaling 18,484 available seats with a projected average fare of $95. North Country Sky proposes to provide six flights a week from January through April; seven from May through June; 11 in July and August; seven from September through December; plus additional flights as needed or around the holidays, for instance.

In reviewing the trio of standard EAS proposals, the authority concluded Air Choice One and Boutique Air did not offer large enough aircraft (nine-seat) to suit Blacker’s needs. Great Lakes Aviation was an intriguing bid with proposed use of a 30-seat aircraft and 12 weekly flights year round, but its hub airport — General Mitchell International Airport of Milwaukee — left too many questions unanswered for much of the authority.

“Milwaukee is an unknown,” said authority chair Brook Shafer. “That could do drastic things to what we’ve already developed with flights to Chicago.”

According to recent passenger demographics provided by Lind, 37 percent of Blacker’s passengers are from Illinois and namely the Chicago area. Of the 44 percent of passengers from Michigan, nearly half are from Grand Traverse, who likely are choosing Blacker because of its flights (and fares) to Chicago.

Flights to Chicago has also been a strong selling point in terms of marketing for Blacker, the authority noted.

If the authority would have opted for a standard EAS provider, it would have only been able to recommend a preferred option to DOT. DOT is not obligated to approve that recommendation.

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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