Jessica Cejnar / Tuesday, April 14 @ 6:02 p.m. / Community, Local Government, Oregon
Boutique Air Seeks Federal Dollars to Replace Contour As Carrier For Del Norte, Curry Counties
Boutique Air has submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide Essential Air Service to the Del Norte County Regional Airport.
However, noting Contour Airlines has “capably served” the area for the last two years, the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority is urging the transportation department to reject the bid, Director Randy Hooper told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Tuesday.
Though he acknowledged that DOT would be within its rights to award the Essential Air Services grant to Boutique, which means the San Francisco-based carrier would replace Contour in Del Norte County, Hooper said the joint powers authority that oversees the local airport hopes to dissuade them.
“What we are attempting to do is express that the level of service Boutique is proposing doesn’t meet the statutory level of Essential Air Service we’re entitled to,” Hooper told the Outpost. “We would then be eligible for the Alternate Essential Air Service program, which is what the Airport Authority did last time the topic came up for discussion two-three years ago.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking proposals for a carrier to serve Del Norte and Curry counties through its Essential Air Services program. The region’s current grant expires in Sept. 30, 2020.
Boutique Air is currently proposing 24 weekly non-stop round-trips between Crescent City and Portland, according to its bid to the U.S. Department of Transportation. One offer would include 24 weekly flights between Crescent City and Portland.
Under the first option, Boutique is requesting a total of $13.3 million in federal subsidies to offer flights out of Crescent City using a Pilatus PC-12 or a total of $14.8 million using a King Air 350. Both are turboprop aircrafts.
Boutique is also offering a second option in its proposal to the federal government that includes 30 weekly non-stop roundtrips between Crescent City and Portland. Under this second option, Boutique is requesting nearly $16.4 million in subsidies using its PC-12 or about $18.6 million using its King Air 350, according to its proposal.
Appearing before the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Hooper noted that though the Airport Authority had “minor issues” with Boutique’s proposal, its request to the Department of Transportation to reject Boutique’s bid had more to do with the relationship it currently has with Contour.
At Hooper’s request, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved sending a letter to the Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Analysis, opposing Boutique’s proposal.
Hooper told supervisors that the Airport Authority submitted similar requests for letters from the Curry County Board of Commissioners, Crescent City Council, Elk Valley Rancheria, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and the City of Brookings, which make up the joint powers authority.
District 2 Supervisor Lori Cowan, the county’s representative on the BCRAA Board of Commissioners, said she’s in favor of Contour.
“They’ve done good by us the last few years,” she said. “One thing that wasn’t stated in the letter and I do want to state it publicly: One of the other reasons Boutique (was) turned down before Contour and again now… handicap accessibility played a part in that.”
Contour Airlines has provided non-stop service between Crescent City and Oakland on its twin-air regional jet since April 2018 through the Alternate Essential Air Service Program. The Tennessee-based airline replaced PenAir, which ceased twice daily flights between Crescent City and Portland, Ore. in December 2017.
After PenAir left the area, the Del Norte Regional Airport submitted a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation for an annual $3.3 million Alternate Essential Air Service grant to be in effect from April 2018 to Sept. 30, 2020. The total grant would be about $8.3 million, according to the Border Coast Regional Airport Authority’s December 2017 proposal.
In September 2017, Boutique Airlines and Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation to operate under the basic Essential Air Services grant in Crescent City.
According to Hooper, the transportation department initially decided the proposal from Great Lakes Airlines was feasible. But the Airport Authority, with help from Volaire Consulting, convinced federal officials that it should award the Alternate EAS grant to Contour.
Great Lakes Aviation ceased operations on March 26, 2018, shortly before Contour Airlines’ inaugural flight out of Crescent City the following month.
On Tuesday, Hooper told the Outpost that the Airport Authority is working with Volaire again to convince the transportation department to reject Boutique’s 2020 proposal. One concern, he said, has to do with the size of Boutique’s request, which is greater than Del Norte’s current subsidy.
Hooper argued that it would make sense if Boutique was proposing to expand services. But its proposal would mean fewer flights than Contour currently provides.
“Even if Contour were to come in higher than they currently get, if it were to be less than what Boutique has proposed under the Essential Air Service program, marginally less, the argument there is it would cost less for taxpayers in the end,” Hooper said, adding that Del Norte would only be entitled to Alternate Essential Air Service if the federal government decides there isn’t a viable option under the basic EAS program.
Since Contour’s first flight out of Crescent City in April 2018, traffic has increased at the Del Norte County Regional Airport, Hooper said. In 2019, a total of 9,084 passengers boarded a flight out of Crescent City. In 2017, the last year PenAir operated in Del Norte, a total of 6,781 passengers hopped aboard a plane out of Crescent City, he said.
This year, though February was “one of the strongest Februarys” the Del Norte airport ever had, airline traffic has died off due to the COVID-19 shelter-in-place rule, Hooper said. In February, the percentage of passengers filling seats on any given flight was about 80 percent, he said. In March that number dropped to 37 percent. After Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order on March 19, that percentage dwindled to 10 percent, Hooper said.
“With the drop in traffic across the airline industry as a whole, one of the good things about EAS and Alternate EAS is we still receive some form of funding,” he said.
“The criteria is if you’re an EAS community and your traffic drops so low, you could potentially lose eligibility. The Department of Transportation and the (Federal Aviation Administration) is relaxing standards and giving relief under the CARES Act to airports and airlines because of how bad things have gotten.”