Airport awaiting response on service proposal

MANISTEE — The Manistee County Blacker Airport Authority has had a busy winter behind the scenes, namely in its pursuit of a new air service contract.

In the meantime, passenger numbers have dipped slightly compared to a winter ago.

At the airport authority’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, Blacker’s director Barry Lind touched on this trend, and the reasons for it, in his monthly report.

“For February, we were significantly down this year,” Lind said, citing a decrease of nearly 30 percent compared to February of 2017 (338 enplanements versus 474). “We’ve met now a couple times on the marketing side to analyze why that is. We don’t believe there is any one smoking gun, but there’s a combination of a variety of issues.”

Lind said delays in releasing flight schedules is likely the largest factor, which can be attributed to the bid process for future air service, as Blacker’s contract with current provider, Public Charters, approaches its July expiration date.

“We did not have a schedule beyond the end of February released until very late this year,” he explained, “and that was really part of the whole airline selection process, as to what direction we were going and if Public Charters was going to be around longer or not.

“Because we didn’t have a schedule that allowed us to sell seats beyond February, our marketing went very silent,” he said. “At the time, we didn’t really want to lead people to a schedule that didn’t have any seats for sale for the rest of the spring.”

Lind added that Blacker opted to forgo its typical Valentine’s Day sale this year because of the holiday landing on Wednesday, rather than a weekend.

“That alone is probably about 10 percent of the month’s difference,” he said. “So, a lot of different things added up to impact (the decline passenger numbers).”

Lind projects that passenger numbers for March should more closely reflect that of last year, thanks to an ongoing fare sale.

“The fare sale accomplished what we intended, but now the average sale price is going to be lower because we’re selling tickets at a significant discount versus the previous year,” he said. “But the numbers will be on par with where we were a year ago.”

Authority member Gerry Haw agreed with measure.

“I think that was the best way to go right now,” he said. “Pull the fares in to keep business going.”

Lind replied, “I think we needed to do that, given how far behind we were trending.”

Blacker’s schedule is currently available through June 20, with the remaining summer schedule dependent on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s approval of the airport’s Alternate Essential Air Service grant proposal.

Throughout January, the airport authority went through the bid process for Essential Air Service (EAS), as authority members heard proposals from a trio of EAS providers, as well as Public Charters. Ultimately, they elected to continue its six-year relationship with the current provider, through the “Alternate” EAS program.

According to DOT, the EAS 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 was the first airport 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.

On Monday, Lind reported he has not received correspondence from DOT since the department acknowledged it had received Blacker’s proposal last month. He said he plans to follow up with DOT later this week.

“We know the process takes awhile, so we don’t want to be too annoying in applying pressure, but at the same time we can’t wait forever for them to move forward,” he said. “So, (Thursday) is the date we set to check up with them if we haven’t heard anything by then.

“The reason it becomes increasingly important is that our summer schedule depends on the grant,” Lind added. “Our existing grant ends in the middle of summer, so in order for us to publish a whole summer schedule, Public Charters needs to at least have a good feeling that DOT is on board with the proposal.”

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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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