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Thursday, March 22, 2012 04:18 pm

The wild blue yonder

Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport goes where no airport has gone before - the airline business

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What do the Wright brothers and Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport have in common?

Both are aviation pioneers.

The Wright brothers succeeded, but it remains to be seen whether the Springfield airport’s foray into the airline business will fly.

“This hasn’t been done before,” says Mark Sixel, an Oregon-based airport consultant retained by the airport. “Usually when an airline shuts down this abruptly, everyone walks away and everyone is left to fend for themselves.”

Not this time.

Two days after Direct Air quit flying without notice, the airport board held an emergency meeting on March 14 and decided to go into the airline business, putting up $715,000 of public money to charter jets to make twice-a-week round trips to Fort Myers through April 28. The public found out during a press conference the next day, held in airport offices at the top of an escalator that didn’t work.

Save for a one-sentence announcement dated the same day as the board meeting and posted on a bulletin board in the terminal, no notice was given of the board meeting. State law requires that an agenda be posted along with the notice, but no agenda was posted on the bulletin board. No notice was posted on the airport’s website. Under state law, notices of all board meetings, regular and otherwise, must be posted on the websites of public agencies maintained by agency employees.

Airport director Mark Hanna told reporters that he believed that a piece of paper posted in a terminal that’s usually empty was sufficient notice of the airport’s decision to guarantee $55,000 per round trip to Vision Airlines – the same charter jet company used by Direct Air – and hope that enough people buy tickets at $139 for a one-way trip that the public won’t lose money.

The Open Meetings Act notwithstanding, Hanna acknowledged that the airport is taking a risk by chartering 13 round trips, but the risk is worth it.

“There’s a lot of stranded people in Florida,” Hanna said. “This is the right thing to do.”

Actually, there are plenty of flights available between Fort Myers and airports within driving distance of Springfield. Two hours after Hanna announced that the airport is getting into the airline business, a check of kayak.com, a travel website, showed no shortage of flights between Fort Myers and St. Louis on the dates that the airport is chartering jets. Virtually all cost substantially more than what the airport is charging – the cheapest was $130 for a one- way trip – and none were non-stop journeys.  A United Airlines flight from Fort Myers to St. Louis on March 28, for example, cost $133 and had two stops with a travel time of 10 hours, 51 minutes; other flights with single stops cost $131 with travel times of less than four hours, 40 minutes. Flights were also available between Fort Myers and airports in Bloomington and Peoria, according to kayak.com.

“It’s a bargain,” Sixel allowed. “I think, in this case, the airport was not concerned about turning a profit.”

While the airport will receive landing fees and money from passenger facility charges (up to $4.50 per traveler), the math is tight.  More than 7,700 people held Direct Air tickets for flights to and from Springfield as of March 15, Hanna told reporters, and the airport needs slightly more than 5,000 of those ticket holders to buy Vision Airlines tickets. Otherwise, the airport will lose money.

Each jet has 200 seats. Assuming every seat is filled, each round trip will generate $55,600 in ticket sales, just $600 above the threshold below which the airport will have to subsidize flights. Hanna said that the airline can add an additional 24 seats per jet to expand capacity, which would increase ticket sales to $62,272 for each round trip if every seat is sold.

The path to break-even likely depends on how quickly passengers with Direct Air tickets made other arrangements, said Sixel, whose company advises the airport on financial matters. Patrick Anderson, head of the airport’s public relations firm, said that 55 passengers were on the inaugural St. Patrick’s Day flight from Springfield to Florida. He said that he did not have passenger figures for the Fort Myers to Springfield journey that day. A check of the Vision Airlines website on Tuesday showed seats available on every flight between Springfield and Fort Myers through April 28, when charter service is scheduled to end.

Any subsidy will come from reserve funds and marketing funds, Hanna said. In Rockford, where directors of the Rockford International Airport have also guaranteed Vision Airlines $55,000 per round trip for 14 journeys between Illinois and Fort Myers to replace canceled Direct Air flights, airport officials are predicting a $125,000 subsidy, according to a story published in the Rockford Register Star.

More than money is at stake, Sixel said. The Springfield airport was on a growth trajectory that could now be set back by years by the Direct Air debacle, he said. The airport can use the impromptu charter service in sales pitches to airlines that might be interested in coming to Springfield, he said.

“You want to have momentum,” Sixel said. “The next time they talk to Allegiant (Airlines), what kind of story do they have to tell? The airport went above and beyond the call of duty here.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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