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Public input sought on air carrier choice

By Sonny Long
March 24, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated March 23, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.

Victoria Regional Airport manager Jason Milewski discusses the options for commercial airline service at the airport with members of the airport commission, including Victoria County Judge Don Pozzi, right.

SPEAK UP

If you are unable to attend Monday's Victoria County Commissioners Court meeting, voice your opinion regarding the airport by calling the Victoria Chamber of Commerce at 361-573-5277, Jason Milewski, airport manager at 361-655-0958 or your Victoria County commissioner.

IF YOU GO

WHO: Victoria County Commissioners Court and Victoria Regional Airport Commission

WHAT: Joint meeting including public discussion of airport air carrier proposals

WHEN: 10 a.m., April 4

WHERE: Commissioners Courtroom, 2nd floor, Victoria County Courthouse, 101 N. Bridge St.



Take a look at two companies competing to serve Victoria airport on Sunday's A1

Which airline do you want flying in and out of the Victoria Regional Airport?

The public will have an opportunity to make its wishes known April 4, when the Victoria Regional Airport Commission will meet in joint session with the Victoria County Commissioners Court to receive public input on the two options available for air carrier service.

Two carriers, United Airlines and SeaPort Airlines, have made proposals for the service.

Pinnacle is Victoria's regional carrier for United. The current contract with United expires in July. The airport has to notify the Texas Department of Transportation by April 6 which proposal it has accepted.

Representatives from both airlines were in Victoria earlier this week to make presentations.

"They offer two very different ways to serve the Victoria Regional Airport," airport manager Jason Milewski told airport commission members during a Thursday meeting. "I'd like to get some feedback from yourselves and from the public. It's really a community decision."

Milewski said Thursday's commission meeting was not to make an official decision.

"I would still like to hear back from the (chemical) plants, other members of the community and allow anyone else to voice their opinion before I make a recommendation," he said.

UNITED/PINNACLE

The United proposal continues to offer the two flights a day to Houston that it has in place now.

Milewski said he emphasized to United that some things need to change, along with the fares, for the air carrier to continue in Victoria.

"I told United it was time to step up. What can you do for Victoria? What can you do to change?" said Milewski. "We can't stay with the same service, or we're going to be dead. We're already dying. Doing this is prolonging the inevitable unless we do something differently."

Part of the change has already taken place as United has reduced ticket prices almost in half to $99 one-way with 14 days notice and $169 round trip with 21 days advance booking, said Milewski. These are for flights to and from Victoria and Houston only.

"That makes driving to Houston not as attractive," Milewski said. "That's something they promised to do and have done. It's a huge step showing they do care about us."

The plane used by United has two engines, seats 34, has a cabin crew and lavatory.

Scheduling is also an issue with United.

"It's not a demand issue, it's a supply issue," said Milewski. "It's not that we were losing passengers, it was the other way around. Every time they cut the number of flights, the number of passengers went down percentage-wise, too. Those flight times were very important."

"Ideally, three flights a day is the best option," Milewski added. "You'd have the early-morning departure, and you'd also have that mid-morning arrival."

SEAPORT AIRLINES

SeaPort is offering three flights a day to Dallas Love Field with fares from $98 one-way to $198 round trip.

The single-engine plane has nine seats, no cabin crew and no lavatory.

Milewski expressed doubts, despite information given in SeaPort's presentation, that luggage at Love Field could be checked straight through to connecting flights.

"Everything that I've been told so far is pointing to the bags going to baggage claim, and you'll have to go back through security in Dallas," he said.

"It will be amazing to see if they got it any other way. Southwest Airlines does not inner-line with anyone. I think (SeaPort) made an early assumption," Milewski said. "Everything we've been told, including from the ground handling company, it cannot be done. If it can't be done, it makes a big difference."

FEDERAL FUNDS

An underlying concern about any air carrier service at the airport is the availability of future federal funds under the Essential Air Service program.

The airport is part of the program that subsidizes airlines to operate in smaller communities.

The EAS program was put into place in 1978 to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service.

The current authorization runs out in 2014 and Milewski is not sure if those funds will be available after then.

"Legislatively, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to re-authorize the program in 2014," he said. "Every year there is an amendment to try to kill the program."

"We need to build and develop a sustainable air service so when EAS money goes away we still have some options," he said.

EAS funding is based on a $200 per passenger formula (annual subsidy level divided by annual passengers generated). Currently about 5,000 passengers a year fly out of the airport.

In 2009 and in 2010, the Victoria airport qualified for $1.59 million in EAS funds each year. That money is paid to the carrier, not to the airport, Milewski explained.

Negotiations are underway for the 2011-2012 amounts.

Milewski said under the current system, the airlines have no incentive.

"Sadly, the small community airport that needs air service is at the mercy of the large carriers that bid on the service," he said. "The system needs to be changed to give the money to the communities instead of to the airlines."

The airport manager is optimistic that even without EAS funds, Victoria can have a viable airfield.

"If the airlines will work with us in the proper manner, we can get beyond that need," he said.

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