By Joey Gerardi
Interviews: Southern Airways Express Receives King Air After Delay
Despite knowing a lot about the Essential Air Service, or EAS, program and what goes on in it there are still some things that slip past and go unnoticed. Southern Airways Express won the contract for the community of Chadron, Neb., (CDR) to operate daily flights to Denver on the King Air 200 and has been operating the route since June of 2021.
But something had gone unnoticed and was brought to the attention of AirlineGeeks by a concerned individual who wishes to remain nameless. Southern Airways Express, or SAE for short, has been operating the route on the much slower Cessna208 since the route began more than six months ago. In this article, we will go over the reasoning for this, as well as celebrate the arrival of the carrier’s first King Air 200.
The Reason and Commentary
As with anyone during the pandemic, and more so in the past couple of months, staffing shortages are plaguing companies everywhere and the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, is not immune to this problem.
AirlineGeeks had a brief discussion with Southern Airways Express Chief Marketing Officer, Keith Sisson, as to why the arrival of these aircraft is six months late.
AirlineGeeks (AG): So, is there any specific reason why the King Air 200 took so long to put into service?
Keith Sisson (KS): Initially we wanted to make sure we got the proper planes into the Chadron market, our predecessor [Boutique Air] flew PC-12’s which were severely lacking in luggage space. So, we specifically ordered the Super 200’s [King Air 200] with cargo pods in order to ensure plenty of room for bags. For one of the planes, we had to have the pod custom built. The larger problem came later and was related to an FAA pilot regulation put into effect in 2018. Southern operates all of our 220 daily flights with two pilots, but the new FAA regulation requires us to initially operate the King Air single Pilot. We believe this is a safety issue and have chosen to seek a variance on that nonsensical rule. Our application has been held up in Washington D.C. for weeks. We’re hoping to get approval any day now to put two pilots into our King Airs. The planes are sitting on the tarmac in Chadron just waiting on government action! Who would possibly want to fly with one pilot instead of two?
(AG): You said planes, as in plural. How many King Air 200’s do you have?
(KS): We have three Super 200’s in our system, and two of them will be operating in Chadron.
(AG): What will the King Air 200 feature in terms of passenger comforts?
(KS): Not many airlines fly a King Air on scheduled-service routes. The aircraft has traditionally been used for private executive charters. Customers flying on the Super 200 will feel more like a corporate executive than passengers on an Essential Air Service route. The planes are outfitted with cargo pods, so the baggage capacity will be similar to the Caravan [Cessna208], but unlike the Caravan, these will cruise at 20,000 feet and 250 miles per hour.
We also had time to ask the City Manager of Chadron, John Sutherland, a question regarding the aircraft currently flying the route to his community;
(AG): So John, has there been any issue or complaints from anyone in the community in regards to the Cessna 208 currently operating the flights to Denver?
(John Sutherland): No, their customer service performance has been excellent. Their service performance has been so much better than their predecessor’s, complaints about the aircraft they have put into interim service for the route have not been an issue with the public. The King Airs that were promised have been delivered…… and will be put into service for regular flights to and from Chadron as soon as the regulatory process allows. We are all looking forward to it.
Each EAS contract has a set amount of subsidy that is given to airlines operating the respective route. Due to the Cessna 208 having a much lower operating cost-per-hour compared to the King Air, we reached out to the FAA to inquire about how this is handled as the subsidy they were given is using the King Air 200 standards, The FAA said they “have no comment at this time”.
The aircraft in question first arrived into the community on Dec. 21, 2021, and was shown off to the residents there, who got a firsthand look at the aircraft they have been so patiently waiting for. In the below photo, you can clearly see the cargo pods under the aircraft that were added to increase baggage capacity.
While this is an exciting time for Chadron and Southern Airways Express, it’s also exciting for AvGeeks. As Keith Sisson mentioned, other airlines do fly the King Air in the United States for scheduled passenger flights, but at this current point in time, there is only one other in the lower48 states that operate a King Air of any type on scheduled passenger flights. Hawthorne, Calif.-based Advanced Air operates the King Air 350 on its EAS routes out of Silver City, N.M., and Merced, Calif. as well as a non-EAS flight from Phoenix to Hawthorne three times a week. But Advanced operates the 350 version of the King kiAir, meaning SAE is the ONLY airline that flies the KingAir200 in the United States, and only on the one route to Chadron, Neb.
As far as when the aircraft will officially be put into scheduled passenger service in Chadron, well that is completely up to the government and the FAA. For now, they have two of them sitting in Chadron if you feel like taking a road trip to see them, or by tracking the tail number N727SA to see if they have finally taken to the skies with passengers.
A big thanks to Keith Sisson at Southern Airways Express and Chadron City Manager John Sutherland for answering my questions.