By Joey Gerardi
Interview: Northern New York Communities Reject Replacement Carrier
Ogdensburg and Plattsburgh, two Essential Air Service communities located in northern New York State have been in aviation news a lot recently. It started back in January 2022 when SkyWest, the carrier that holds the current Essential Air Service Contract in the communities, requested to terminate the EAS contract in both cities. That was swiftly denied by the Department of Transportation (DOT) until they could find a replacement carrier for each respective contract. That is the point when the EAS bidding process began for both cities.
Meanwhile, SkyWest requested to reduce the number of weekly frequencies from 12 to only seven for both communities, of which the reply to this was recently announced. On Feb. 23, 2022, a document was posted to regulations.gov regarding the request to reduce frequencies.
The response was that the carrier is required to maintain the contracted service levels, 12-weekly flights, until May 11, 2022, or a new carrier has been found. Further down the page, it did make an adjustment to that ruling, “Congress has given the Department limited discretion to waive this required level of service, but only if an eligible community requests the waiver, and only for a limited period of time”. That ruling essentially means that SkyWest is allowed to reduce the number of flights, but only if the community asks for it which they haven’t thus far.
So the EAS bidding process has begun, and both communities had only a single eligible bidder; Plattsburgh had Cape Air bid, and Ogdensburg had Boutique bid. There was a second carrier that bid for Ogdensburg, Air Charter Express, but they didn’t meet the qualifications and weren’t counted. There is an old saying, “beggars can’t be choosers”, but that won’t apply in this case as both communities rejected the only carrier that bid for their cities.
On Feb. 25, 2022, NNY360 News posted an article saying that Ogdensburg has rejected the bid from Boutique as it didn’t meet the minimum EAS standards. On the same day, a document was posted to regulations.gov from the Clinton County Legislature, where the Plattsburgh Airport is located, informing the DOT that they were rejecting Cape Air’s bid for the same exact reason, service wouldn’t be able to accommodate historical traffic levels.
In the document posted by Plattsburgh, they went over how switching from 50-seat jets to 8/9-seat prop planes just isn’t enough for their community. Just before the pandemic in 2019, SkyWest carried 36,889 passengers to/from Plattsburgh, and a switch to Cape Air would mean annual capacity would go down to just 17,472 seats. Both communities are now looking at the same exact alternative, Alternate Essential Air Service, with Smyrna, Tenn.-based Contour Airlines using a 30-seat Embraer E135 aircraft.
AirlineGeeks had the chance to talk to Steve Lawrence, the Executive Director of the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, about this interesting situation happening in Northern New York.
AirlineGeeks (AG): I know you are looking at an Alternate EAS service, but what exactly goes into applying for that as opposed to normal EAS service?
Steve Lawrence (SL): I’m new to it too, but what I am told is we will create a proposal that we work out with Contour and submit that directly to the US DOT. The main thing about this is with EAS service, airlines submit bids for the communities and the government pays the airlines directly, but with AEAS it’s a grant to the communities and it’s up to us to make payments to the respective airline, in this case, Contour.
(AG): Have you been talking to other cities that Contour currently flies to or have recently started serving to see what they are all about?
(SL): Yes, we have reached out to them and they have all been very complimentary and given glowing recommendations of the Contour service.
(AG): Is there any other reason you have rejected the current bidder, or is it simply because their aircraft are too small?
(SL): Well, that’s one of them. The other aspect is that we are entitled to twin-engine service and Boutique runs a Pilatus PC-12 which is only single-engine. Another thing is that if we were to accept that, then it would be a waiver and for the future EAS contracts we would have to entertain single-engine proposals which is a thing we definitely don’t want to do. We are entitled to twin-engine service, it works for us, it is our model. We need the aircraft for enplanements, and since we expanded the airport and lengthened the runway in 2016 we have done very well. In 2019 before the pandemic we were close to 25,000 passengers with just EAS service and Boutique Air simply wouldn’t be able to do that with their Pilatus. We did have Allegiant before the pandemic as well, but they are not included in that 25,000 number.
(AG): Are you looking at any specific cities or hubs you want to serve with Contour?
(SL): At this point, we are just focused on getting Contour here, but we have briefly talked with them about Philidephia, especially with their American partnership it would be good for those passengers wanting to connect elsewhere.
(AG): Plattsburgh is also looking at Contour, is there a possibility you will combine your Contour Air flights into a single tag service similar to what they do in Parkersburg and Beckley, W.V.?
(SL): No, we want nonstop. For years with EAS we had a sorta milk run service where they would run Massena-Ogdensburg-Watertown then onto Pittsburgh, and most recently Cape Air to Boston they had to make a stop in Albany, so if you got on at the first stop you were landing two or three times before you even get to the hub. Everyone has gone out on their own with nonstop service and we haven’t talked to Plattsburg about that.
(AG): Pilot shortages have been a huge issue in the aviation industry, are you worried about running into this issue with Contour?
(SL): No, when we preliminarily reached out to them they haven’t said anything about shortages so far, when we asked them that would’ve been the first things they would tell us. They have shown interest, so that really isn’t a worry right now but it is a concern cause it did affect SkyWest and that is the main reason they are choosing to leave us. If that were the case and Contour couldn’t come here, we have assurance from the DOT that we could go out and re-bid for airlines and hopefully, someone bigger would bid if it did come to that.
Until a new carrier is chosen for both communities, SkyWest under the United Express banner will remain in both Northern New York communities. We would like to thank Steven Lawrence for taking the time to briefly talk to us about this most unique situation happening in New York State. We also attempted to contact Plattsburgh Airport, but they were unable to be reached in time for publishing.