Victoria officials commit funding to save airport

Melissa Crowe By Melissa Crowe

July 28, 2014 at 2:28 a.m.
Updated July 29, 2014 at 2:29 a.m.

Victoria County officials are looking at a $150,000 marketing campaign to improve the reputation at Victoria Regional Airport.

Since Sun Air International started flying out of Victoria in October 2012, a constant string of maintenance issues, canceled flights, baggage issues and ticketing problems have doomed the airport.

Unless the number of departing passengers increases, the airport could face losing federal funding, a consequence that would effectively end commercial air service in Victoria.

With a new carrier anticipated to start in October, Victoria County commissioners voted Monday to commit $50,000 to Airport Manager Jason Milewski's proposed campaign to show off the changes.

As word spreads of the new carrier, travelers are already rethinking plans to fly out of Victoria.

Despite Brad Bishop's bad experience with Sun Air two summers ago, he said he would be willing to give a new carrier a try.

After flying into Houston from Mexico, his flight back to Victoria was canceled. He ended up having to take a two-hour cab ride back home.

"I'm sure I'll end up flying out of Victoria again," Bishop, 22, of Victoria, said.

Milewski will submit an application Wednesday for a $100,000 federal grant he hopes will cover two-thirds the cost of the marketing plan aimed at promoting the improved service a new carrier is bringing to Victoria.

"We need to do a massive marketing campaign to let our public know there are significant changes at the airport," Milewski said.

The new carrier, Public Charters, will start offering service Oct. 1 to Austin and Dallas - two of the busiest airports in a five-state region, including Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Since Pinnacle Airlines Corp., which operated Continental and later United flights from Victoria, declared bankruptcy in April 2012, Victoria Regional has struggled to live up to its federal contract with the Essential Air Service program. The program helps smaller communities maintain an airline.

"I don't want to beat a dead horse," Milewski said. "Without any question, it's clear that the level of service we're offering is not meeting the demand."

To continue being in the Essential Air Service program, the airport needs an average of 10 passengers a day and subsidies of no more than $200 per passenger.

While airports across the southwest region saw an average 2 percent increase in passengers, Victoria saw a 45 percent drop from 2012 to 2013.

Victoria is second-to-last in passenger numbers for the 2013 calendar year and is above the subsidy cap, Milewski said.

"If our decline in passenger counts were reflective of our local or regional economy, I wouldn't be here today trying to pursue this," Milewski said. "More and more people are flying, and the economy is getting better in our region."

County Commissioner Danny Garcia said it's unclear if the marketing campaign for the new carrier will show a return on investment.

"It's really a shot in the dark for us," he said. "But if Victoria County is going to continue to grow ... we have to provide that type of service, which is a good airline."

The Small Community Air Service Development Grant has $7 million in its budget this year and typically funds about 10 projects, Milewski said.

"It's strictly used for marketing, which is exactly what we need it for," Milewski said.

County Judge Don Pozzi said he supports the airport manager's recommendation.

Without the grant, the airport would still need the marketing campaign and likely $50,000 from the county, Pozzi said.

Commissioner Kevin Janak applauded Milewski's efforts.

"We need to spend at least that amount of money to inform the public that this is a new look," Janak said.

If passenger counts don't improve, the next move is to seek a waiver from the Department of Transportation, Milewski said.

Commissioner Gary Burns said the airport needs to make a drastic change.

Burns proposed making the commitment as a loan to the airport, which will be repaid to the county.

Commissioners did not discuss a timeline for repayment.

Milewski said if the grant is approved, he will look at hiring a marketing firm to take the lead.

"We will lose all air service completely if we don't do something," Milewski said, later adding, "This is our best shot."



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