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Sun Air is smart choice for Victoria

By BY MARK CESTARI
May 3, 2014 at 12:03 a.m.

Mark Cestari

The air transportation landscape has changed dramatically during the past two decades. Industry consolidation, the soaring cost of fuel and changing global economics have wiped out service to hundreds of small communities. Realizing the key role that access to air service plays in economic development and quality of life factor, the government currently provides subsidy to 163 cities, including Victoria, in order for them to have access to the air transportation system. The program is called Essential Air Service, or EAS.

Sun Air's arrival in Victoria

Sun Air was awarded the EAS route from Victoria and began flying here in October 2012, with four weekday nonstops to Houston IAH, a major connecting hub for United Airlines, where easy connections are made to 100 worldwide destinations. Service has been provided from VCT Airport to Houston for more than 40 years, and there are many frequent flyers who are members of United's frequent traveler program in Victoria.

Sun Air is a small, regional carrier flying nine-seat Piper Chieftain executive class commuter aircraft. Our aircraft are small, but they are comfortable and make the trip to IAH in 50 minutes. They allow us to provide frequent flights. Because Sun Air has interline agreements with major carriers, our passengers can check their bags here in Victoria, take our short flight to Houston, and their bags will be automatically transferred to their final destination. Since parking is free at VCT airport, there are significant cost and time savings compared to driving to and from airports in Austin, San Antonio or Houston.

Sun Air's transformation

In our first year of Sun Air service at Victoria, we had some challenges and made some mistakes. We apologize. The previous carrier abandoned the market, forcing many loyal, local airport customers to seek other travel options. It was slower than expected winning them back. We also underestimated some of the operational challenges and saw higher than expected delays and cancellations. Our service attracted many long-haul travelers, and we sometimes had problems accommodating large baggage items. Those problems have since been addressed. For April 2014, our completion factor was 98.5 percent - superior to the industry standard. We are also expanding our baggage compartment areas to carry larger and heavier bags.

In late 2013, ownership changed at Sun Air, and a new senior management team was put into place to improve the level of service and expand to new markets that are a strategic fit for our business commuter model. Sun Air's strength is offering high-frequency, reliable service to small communities at competitive fares for the customer. Our interline agreements allow flyers to purchase one ticket through to their final destination using popular booking engines like Travelocity, Orbitz and Kayak.com.

Sun Air has also been recently reaching out to partners in the local government, business and hospitality communities and is inviting new and previous customers to come try/fly the "New Sun Air." The future looks bright for Victoria and Sun Air.

We need your help, Victoria

So what is the problem? On May 1, the Victoria County Airport Commission voted unanimously to opt out of the EAS program. Instead, it will apply for Alternate EAS service. The commission unilaterally endorsed a charter company, which has no interline handling agreement with major carriers. This would also shift flights to Austin with one stop to Dallas-Ft. Worth. The flight to DFW would take more than two hours, and passengers will be required to claim their bags and stand in line to recheck them to their final destination. Is this kind of "service" really in Victoria's best interests? It could cost the community its EAS subsidy forever.

Sun Air was not even allowed to make a formal presentation to the commission. Only the airport manager's hand-picked alternative was given that opportunity - good-ole-boy cronyism at its best.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will make a final decision most likely next week. If you want Sun Air to keep providing frequent, reliable nonstop flights from Victoria, simply send an email to EAS@dot.gov and tell them so. It is your community and your future.

Mark Cestari is vice president at Sun Air Express, a business commuter airline based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., currently serving Victoria Airport. Contact him at mcestari@gosunair.com.

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