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Airport authority recommends switching carriers

MARTINSBURG — The Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority is recommending Boutique Air take over daily passenger flights at the airport, replacing Southern Airways, which has been providing flights for six years.

Boutique Air, headquartered in San Francisco, is one of three airlines asking the U.S. Department of Transportation for an Essential Air Service contract to subsidize passenger flights at the Altoona-Blair County Airport for a two-year period starting Nov. 1.

Southern Airways of Pompano Beach, Fla., and Cape Air of Hyannis, Mass., also submitted proposals now under consideration by the federal government.

All three carriers propose keeping the current destinations — Pittsburgh and the Baltimore-Washington International airports — but Southern also included an option that would introduce flights to Philadelphia’s airport.

“Southern has done well the last six years, but I think it’s time to do something different,” authority member Seth Smith said after he and authority members Mike Ritchey, Tom Hite and Gary Orner voted to recommend Boutique.

The four authority members voted, without discussion, during a public meeting Wednesday where it was revealed that the companies’ proposals were discussed during a recent executive session where the authority members ranked the companies through a straw poll.

Solicitor David Pertile said the straw poll didn’t violate the state’s Sunshine Law requiring votes to occur in public because he retained the ballots and didn’t reveal the results until the authority’s public meeting on Wednesday.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Pertile said the poll showed Boutique with the highest ranking, Cape Air as second and Southern as third.

Pertile also announced that two absent authority members, Herbert Bolger and Ben Stapelfeld, advised him of their support for Boutique and asked that their positions be recorded in the meeting minutes. But their support, the solicitor said, wouldn’t count toward the vote because of their absence.

Pertile also contended that the recent executive session wouldn’t violate the state’s Sunshine Law because company proposals included proprietary information that cannot be shared publicly.

“That’s not a valid reason for an executive session unless the release of the proprietary information violates a specific law,” media law attorney Melissa Melewsky of the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association said when contacted the day after the authority meeting. “And if that’s the case, the solicitor should have stated what law would have been violated and what makes that information confidential.”

During the authority’s public meeting, the Mirror maintained that the portion of the executive session where authority members spoke about what they liked or didn’t like about the airline proposals should have been public. It falls under the portion of the Sunshine Law requiring governing bodies to discuss, deliberate and vote in public.

As for the legality of the straw vote, Melewsky acknowledged a 1994 state court ruling in favor of a school board which used a straw vote to narrow the number of candidates for a superintendent’s post.

“But just because a court decided one way in one case doesn’t mean the same ruling applies in another case with its own specific set of circumstances,” Melewsky said.

The recommendation

After Wednesday’s authority meeting adjourned, Smith, Ritchey, Orner and Hite named various reasons for supporting Boutique.

They praised the Pilatus PC-12 aircraft with its pressurized cabin. “It can go around thunderstorms a little easier,” Orner said.

In a statement issued about the authority’s vote, Bolger also praised the Pilatus PC-12 aircraft.

“We believe that the Pilatus aircraft offers a higher level of service in terms of comfort, speed and reliability,” Bolger said.

Smith also praised Boutique’s improved passenger numbers, as reflected in reports about the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport. Boutique began serving that airport in November 2018 and reported an average $271 per passenger subsidy for the 2019 fiscal year. That was improvement over $340 per passenger subsidy for the 2018 fiscal year and the $348 per passenger subsidy for the 2017 fiscal year.

Ritchey identified Boutique’s interline agreements and code shares with United and American airlines. Based on the company proposal, that means easier ticketing and baggage transfers for flyers using those airlines and their websites.

Another factor in Boutique’s favor, Smith said, is that it can provide rental cars at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, a long-needed option, especially to attract business travelers.

“The fact that Boutique has their own rental car company and will be providing rental cars at the Altoona airport weighed heavily in their favor,” airport Manager Tracy Plessinger said.

A lot of time and effort went into reviewing the proposals and making a decision, Hite and Orner said.

Southern Airways reaction

Before the authority voted in favor of recommending Boutique, Southern’s Chief Commercial Officer Mark Cestari offered reminders of his company’s ongoing efforts to build ridership.

“Don’t turn the page on six years of progress, six years of commitment,” he said.

Cestari also told the authority that Southern’s Cessna 208 Grand Caravan EX is the better aircraft for the flights to and from Blair County, Pittsburgh and the BWI airports.

“Our aircraft is ideally suited for these routes,” Cestari said.

The authority members offered no response to his claims nor to promise in response to Boutique’s plan.

Cestari acknowledged ongoing problems trying to find a car rental agency to set up at the Altoona-Blair County Airport. So instead of continuing that pursuit, Cestari said Southern would establish a car rental business there, with reservations and arrangements handled by existing staff.

That also brought no response from the authority.

The day after the authority voted to support Boutique, Southern’s Chief Marketing Officer Keith Sisson offered disappointment with the authority’s decision.

Sisson pointed out that it was two years ago when the U.S. Department of Transportation decided against awarding a contract to the Altoona-Blair County Airport with a fifth daily departure, which would have required another $390,000 in subsidy.

“This year, in the midst of the worst economic crisis of our time, the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority is asking the DOT to award (Boutique) a contract that is a half million higher than Southern’s bid for the same number of flights,” Sisson said. “That’s after Southern has delivered the highest passenger counts to Altoona in almost a decade. Needless to say, we are confused and disappointed.”

The subsidy costs

When the U.S. Department of Transportation reviews the proposals for subsidized flights at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, it will examine each company’s requested subsidy and proposed schedule.

Boutique is asking for

$2.86 million, Southern is asking for $2.53 million and Cape Air is asking for $2.21 million, for flights to and from the Pittsburgh and BWI airports.

Southern also offered three additional options for the government to consider, with flights to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at $2.75 million, to Pittsburgh only at $2.39 million and to Philadelphia only at $2.81 million.

No date has been set on a decision. The public is welcome to review proposals and render comments on the www.regulations.gov website, with relevant documents earmarked DOT-OST-2002-11446. The other option is to provide written comments to eas@dot.gov and indicate that they apply to the Altoona-Blair County Airport.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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