County commissioners approve airline selection

A Silver Airways aircaft

County commissioners signed off on the airport board’s recommendation that a new airline begin providing service to Victoria in November.

The Victoria Regional Airport commission voted last week to select Silver Airways as the commercial airline to fly in and out of Victoria when Texas Sky’s contract expires Oct. 31. With the county commissioners’ approval, the airport board’s recommendation will be sent to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will make the final decision.

County commissioners discussed Silver Airways’ service offerings on Monday, which include a number of upgrades from the current options to fly in and out of Victoria.

“Virtually every concern the community has raised and every request the community has made is addressed with this airline,” County Judge Ben Zeller said during Monday’s meeting.

Silver Airways would provide a brand new airplane that seats 46 passengers to fly in and out of Victoria, and the plane would include a full-service bathroom and be staffed by a flight attendant. Silver would offer two round-trip flights from Victoria to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport every weekday, and a one round-trip flight on Saturdays and Sundays.

Under Texas Sky, there was one round-trip flight to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport six days a week.

Silver Airways also has “codeshares” with other airlines, including United Airlines, allowing passengers to book a flight to their final destination in one transaction and not have to recheck their bags after flying out of Victoria.

Codeshares also allow travelers to easily book flights to and from their final destination using an online travel booking website. Under Texas Sky, a passenger looking to travel to Victoria from a place like San Francisco wouldn’t find the city in a flight search engine like Expedia or Travelocity, said airport director Lenny Llerena.

“The difference is going to be that your bags get checked here in Victoria and you won’t see them until your final destination,” Llerena said. “And with the codeshare you can actually book a ticket from Victoria to wherever you’re going where United goes.”

Silver Airways will be tasked with drastically increasing ridership in order to receive a federal subsidy under the Essential Air Service program.

In recent years, ridership on Texas Sky dipped so low that the airport had to get a waiver from the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue receiving the subsidized Essential Air Service.

“A big issue with our prior airplane was the fact that even if it was at capacity for every single flight, we still would not have hit our minimum numbers, which is a horrible arrangement that’s clearly not sustainable,” Zeller said.

To qualify for the Essential Air Service subsidy, most airlines need to meet two requirements. First, a community must maintain an average of 10 passengers or more per service day. Second, the federal government is prohibited from subsidizing each passenger’s ticket by more than $200.

For Silver Airways, which is asking for a $4.9 million annual subsidy from the federal government, that means that each flight will have to have at least 20 passengers, for a minimum of 24,867 passengers per year.

Increasingly fewer passengers travel in and out of the Victoria airport in recent years. Ridership has dipped from 8,000 passengers per year in 2008 to 2,350 passengers last year, according to airport data.

To increase the number of travelers using the airport, Silver has committed to an annual budget of $50,000 to spend on marketing in Victoria. The airline has said it will work with the airport and the county to advertise its service and special offerings.

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara.

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Health Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers public health and health care for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. Questions, tips, or ideas? Please get in touch: cmccarthy@vicad.com or call 361-580-6597.

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