Victoria will be getting a smaller aircraft that makes more frequent trips when a new airline, Boutique Air, begins service to Victoria Regional Airport after Nov. 1.
Boutique Air was selected by the federal government to be the Essential Air Service provider in Victoria and is expected to start service after Texas Sky’s contract expires Oct. 31. The exact date when Boutique will start, however, is still unclear.
The company’s chief operating officer Brian Murphy said Boutique was working to begin “as soon as possible.”
“We just found out about this,” Murphy said in an interview about the government’s decision. “We’re trying to start as close to that Nov. 1 date as we can but we don’t know when that will be.”
Boutique has not yet determined the schedule and pricing for flights to and from Victoria, Murphy said.
Boutique plans to use a Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft to fly in and out of Victoria. The plane seats nine passengers and two pilots, and includes a full-service lavatory, Murphy said. The King Air 350 is a pressurized aircraft with a cruise speed of more than 330 mph, he added. Boutique’s plane is smaller than the one Texas Sky uses, a Jetstream 32 that seats 19 passengers.
Boutique will be making more than three times as many round trips every week compared to Texas Sky. Texas Sky offers six round-trip flights per week; Boutique plans to offer at least 21 flights to two destinations: Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.
Another major difference in the new carrier is Boutique Air’s codeshare partnership with United Airlines, which allows United to sell seats on Boutique flights.
The federal government announced its selection of Boutique in a Sept. 18 order, less than two months before Texas Sky will stop serving Victoria.
Victoria and other smaller communities throughout the country are able to attract commercial air carriers as part of the Essential Air Service program, which was created after the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978. The program provides federal subsidies to airlines to make it financially viable for them to fly in and out of smaller communities. Because it is the federal subsidy that makes air service possible in communities like Victoria, the U.S. Department of Transportation has the final say in which commercial airline operates from such airports.
After years of frustration with the current provider, Texas Sky, Victoria officials vetted multiple new airlines before narrowing the list to two preferred airlines: Silver Airways and Boutique Air. Although the airport commission ultimately recommended Silver to take over the EAS contract in November, the feds opted for Boutique Air, which asked for a smaller subsidy from the government.
Boutique works with multiple EAS communities throughout the country, including airports in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Clovis, N.M.
“We are excited about starting service in Victoria,” Murphy said. “Something we do well is turning communities around that haven’t been getting the best service historically.”
Victoria’s ridership has dipped dramatically in recent years, and the Victoria Regional Airport will need to attract more travelers if it wants to continue providing commercial air service, according to the terms of the EAS program.
As Boutique prepares to launch air service in Victoria, its competitor Silver Airways is lobbying the federal government to change its decision.
Silver filed a petition with the Department of Transportation, asking it to reconsider. Silver plans to file a second memo to add that it would be ready to take over operations on Nov. 1, a start date to which Boutique has not yet committed, a spokeswoman for the airline said.
In the petition, Silver officials argue that the transportation department made its decision purely based on cost, because Silver asked for a bigger yearly subsidy than Boutique.
Silver wants the government to consider a new proposal from Silver, in which it would offer a smaller aircraft and require a smaller subsidy to fly to and from Victoria.
Silver officials are frustrated with the DOT’s decision, they say, because it goes against the recommendations by multiple local bodies that singled out Silver as the preferred carrier. Silver said in its petition that federal transportation officials have typically selected the airline backed by the community in previous cases.
In its recommendation, the Victoria Regional Airport Commission threw its weight behind Silver in part because of its larger, 46-passenger aircraft. Lenny Llerena, the airport’s executive director, wrote in a memo to the Department of Transportation that Silver’s aircraft would allow more passengers to fly from Victoria in the morning, when travelers might be trying to get to business meetings in Houston or connecting flights at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.
“A small, nine-seat aircraft would not be able to handle this higher level of peak traffic early in the day,” Llerena wrote in a July memo backing Silver.
The U.S. Department of Transportation declined to comment on Silver’s petition.
Since the DOT announced its decision, Victoria officials have said they’re happy with the government’s choice.
Trey Ruschhaupt, the chairman of the airport commission, said after the decision was made that he thought either airline, Silver or Boutique, would be good for Victoria.
“Boutique is still a very, very good airline and a better option than what we have now,” Ruschhaupt said.
Llerena echoed Ruschhaupt’s support of Boutique, and said last week that he thought Boutique was a great company and he was looking forward to working with them.