By Joey Gerardi
Sun Country Selected for Essential Air Service Contract
Essential Air Service (EAS), the government-funded program providing air service to small communities around the U.S., has been in the newS a lot recently. With new contracts being selected almost every month around the country, and SkyWest requesting to terminate more than 30 of these contracts, it is a very confusing time for the program with a lot of unknowns for the many communities in the program.
SkyWest, under the United Express banner, requested to terminate just over 30 of these EAS contracts at the beginning of the year, each of the communities began the EAS bidding process and each city had its prospective bidders and proposals from the airlines.
There were a few airline proposals that were a bit of a shock, but none more so than Eau Claire, Wis. This small community located 85 miles east of Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport had three airlines submit proposals to the Department of Transportation: Boutique Air, Sun Country, and Southern Airways Express, the latter of which revoked its proposal.
Boutique proposed service to Minneapolis/St. Paul for multiple flights a day, Sun Country proposed service to four airports all of which at less than daily frequencies. One of the requirements to operate EAS flights is they must meet a certain number of daily flights unless they are otherwise waived.
The carrier that rescinded its proposal; Southern Airways Express, even sent in a letter to the DOT saying how they hope Boutique Air gets selected as Sun Country doesn’t meet certain requirements. The following is an excerpt from the two-page letter Southern Airways Express sent to the DOT:
“Under no circumstances should the Department accept Sun Country’s proposal, whether by waiver or otherwise, even if there is support for the proposal. To do so would set a horrendous precedent and invite a host of similarly untenable EAS applications from carriers operating large aircraft….For DOT to subsidize such service would make an outright mockery of the EAS program, its goals, and its well-established precedents over more than 40 years.”
The airport director of the Eau Claire Regional Airport sent a letter to the DOT to “request that the Secretary waive the EAS minimum frequency requirement of 49 U.S.C. 41732 (b)(1)(a) as related to frequency of service for the duration of this Sun Country EAS contract to serve Eau Claire.” and it appears the DOT did accept the airports request as Sun Country has been awarded the EAS contract on July 13, 2022.
However, at the posting date of this article, the DOT has yet to post a response to Southern Airways Express’ opposition to selecting Sun Country. It would be worth noting that the other carrier proposing service, Boutique Air, only operates single-engine Pilatus PC-12s and would require the airport to waive their right to two-engine aircraft for this and possibly future EAS contracts.
So with the contract selected, here are the details of the service. While the contract has been chosen, the airline hasn’t formally announced an exact start date for its Eau Claire service, the contract is scheduled to start on Dec. 1, 2022 and will run for two years until Nov. 30, 2024. All services will be flown using 186-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft, the largest on any EAS contract in the entire country.
The airline will operate flights twice-weekly year-round to Minneapolis/St. Paul, in addition, it will operate an average of two flights a week to Ft Myers, Orlando, or Las Vegas and the destination they do serve will depend on the season and month. The annual subsidy of the contract will be $6,460,988 per year for the two years. The airline did mention they’d provide bus service to their hub at Minneapolis/St. Paul on the days when there are no flights, but that is not part of the EAS contract.
The Las Vegas flight will become the longest EAS flight route in the entire country at 1,380 miles, overtaking the current record holder which is Alaska Airlines on their Anchorage to Adak EAS flight that comes in at 1,192 miles.