Sun Air official talks about growing pains, plans to improve
BY MELISSA CROWE - MCROWE@VICAD.COM
Jan. 22, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 22, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.
WHAT'S ESSENTIAL AIR SERVICE?
• The program was put into place to guarantee small communities could maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service after deregulation in 1978.
• The Department of Transportation currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve about 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.
• Carriers are paid on a per-flight-completed basis, but the department typically pays for flights canceled by weather conditions.
• Sun Air International's subsidy rate for October 2012 was $2.3 million.
• The previous contract for Victoria Regional Airport had a subsidy rate of $1.86 million in May 2012
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation
Addressing a packed room of business and community leaders, Roy Canter tried to sympathize with his experience flying in to Victoria.
"I got in a taxi in Houston because we had a maintenance issue," said, Canter, vice president of Sun Air International's customer service. "I feel a little bit of your pain."
The sentiment further indicates a growing legacy of inconsistent and unreliable flights from his company, which services Victoria Regional Airport through a federal contract for Essential Air Service.
More than 70 percent of Sun Air's completed flights departed on time last month, and airline officials say that figure needs to improve.
Canter answered questions during the weekly Partnership Victoria meeting Tuesday morning.
"We've had a few growing pains ... but we're working on it," Canter said.
Canter, who previously worked for Colgan Air under Pinnacle, said cancellations and flight reliability is "not where we want it to be."
Colgan Air previously provided Essential Air Service to Victoria.
"Demand has far exceeded our expectations," he said.
The month-to-date flight-completion rate is about 85 percent, a number Canter called "unacceptable." He said the goal is to bring it up to 95 percent.
County Judge Don Pozzi listed a number of "major issues," including plane size, scheduling, baggage problems and cancelations.
The airline flies eight flights during weekdays and four flights during weekends between Victoria and George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston on a nine-seat Piper Chieftain.
In December, the airline canceled 53 of 208 flights. In November, the cancellations were at 18 of 208. For both months, flight delays of more than 15 minutes were at 20 and 21 percent - 44 delays in November and 43 in December.
Canter said the plan is to bring in a third plane to help alleviate the problems, as well as baggage restrictions.
"In the event we see we're booked heavy and have excess baggage, we will fly those planes wingtip-to-wingtip with luggage," Canter said.
Several attendees at the meeting brought up issues they had flying, including no notice of baggage restrictions, no notice of cancellations and no compensation when flights were canceled.
Victoria College President Tom Butler mentioned a time the college flew a speaker in from California.
When she went to Victoria Regional Airport for her return trip, Butler said she was not permitted to fly because of a weight limit.
"We ended up driving her to Hobby where she was able to make her connection," Butler said. "She was told she could get a cab at her expense."
Canter said the response was "not the standard."
Victoria Economic Development Corp. President Dale Fowler said air service is vital for the community's business growth.
"We need Sun Air to be successful," Fowler said, so Victoria can be successful.
He said when flights are on-time, the service is convenient to area business travelers.
Airport Manager Jason Milewski said he thought Tuesday's meeting went well.
"I believe that they understood the issues we have and are diligently trying to get them resolved," Milewski said.
Victoria is Sun Air's biggest and first Essential Air Service market, Milewski said.
"We're going from a big national carrier to a small plane, that was a big impact here," Milewski said. "There have been a lot of growing pains."
The city's options are limited, and right now, Sun Air is the only way to have air service.
He said flights are never a matter of passenger load but rather a wide range of mechanical issues and FAA requirements.
"If it's an empty plane, they still get paid to fly," Milewski said.
He said the Department of Transportation is concerned with flight performance.
"If they keep canceling, it's a big issue," Milewski said. However, he said Sun Air is nowhere near the federal department's "red line."
If one plane times out and the spare plane has a mechanical problem, whether a seat won't go back or there is engine trouble, it affects the schedule.
"We've dealt for so many years with an airline that didn't care - it's nice to have someone who cares," Milewski said.