Airport board hears airline pitches


December 20, 2019

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe

Air Choice One president and CEO Shane Storz, standing, outlines a proposal to renew the company's contract to provide Essential Air Service for the Gogebic-Iron County Airport to the airport board on Wednesday at Gogebic Community College. Air Choice One, which has provided EAS to the airport since 2014, was one of four companies presenting to the board Wednesday. Taylor Wood, marketing specialist for Air Choice One is standing at left. Those listening to Storz include, clockwise from right, board members Joe Bonovetz, Patrick Hanson, Tom Laabs and Brandon Snyder, airport manager Michael Harma, and airport secretary Kristi Freeman.


Ironwood - Officials from four commercial air service companies were in Ironwood Wednesday to compete for the next two-year contract serving Gogebic-Iron County Airport.

Gogebic-Iron County Airport operates with Essential Air Service (EAS) funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The subsidies go to airlines that provide commercial passenger service to rural and small-community airports.

The air services that outlined EAS service proposals at the four-hour special meeting of the Gogebic-Iron County Airport board at Gogebic Community College included a averaged two-year bid of $3.9 million bid from Air Choice One, the current provider since 2014; a $3.6 million from Boutique Air; $3.9 million from Southern, and $3.9 million from Denver Air Connection. Air Choice One and Denver Air Connection also offered optional four-year bids with a gradual cost increase.

Joe Bonovetz, chair of the airport board, said the board would be meeting again at 10 a.m. Monday, Jan 6, 2020 at the airport to discuss the proposals and make a EAS recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"The decision will be about improving air service and who can best provide to the needs of the community," Bonovetz said after the meeting.

All four airlines said that flight scheduling, an ability to expand available seating to grow and a generous marketing package to include interaction with area community and businesses would help Ironwood increase its annual boardings from an average 5,300 to the 8,000 and 10,000 level to qualify for additional EAS funding for more airport improvements.

Bonovetz said the current concerns are area residents driving to other airports because the EAS provider is not interlinked with the major airlines to allow baggage service to the end destination. This requires passengers to go through baggage check-in after landing to board the major airline.

"The main concerns are the interline agreements, ticketing and baggage," Bonovetz said. "People don't want to have to handle their bags in between destinations."

He said passengers also prefer an early departure time to allow time to make connecting flights in the Twin Cities and Chicago. He said people want a late afternoon or evening return flight to allow for same day round-trip travel for business and leisure.

Three of the airlines all have ticketing and interline agreements with either American or United Airlines with access by travel agents and online travel reservation agencies. Air Choice One said its online portal works with reservations and is currently completing an interline agreement.

Southern has an interline agreement with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Condor, along with Air New Zealand in 2020.

Air Choice One, Boutique Air and Southern would maintain both the Chicago and Minneapolis flights currently offered by Air Choice One. Denver Air Connection said it was not feasible to overnight a jet in the Twin Cities and is limiting the service to Chicago.

Bonovetz said the Chicago connection is important but that a lot of local people also want the Twin Cities connection that has been available in recent years.

The Denver Air Connection team said jet service with a fleet of two 50 seat Embraer EMB 145 jets, five 30-seat Dornier 328 jets, and one Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia propellor drive plane will provide shorter flight times and a smoother ride. Both jets have a flight attendant, snacks and beverage service, lavatory, overhead storage and over 72 inches of cabin height.

"It feels like a VIP charter," said Glen Rich, vice president of Denver Air Connection, who was present with Marc Hesting, director of finance, and Michael Gall, technical program director.

Denver Air Connection proposes 12 round-trips per week to Chicago O'Hare, with two round-trips per day Monday through Friday, and one round trip on weekends. The schedule can be adjusted based on community input.

"We're not tied to that, if you prefer to switch the arrangement," Rich said. "We just need to stick to the 12 round-trip flights per week schedule."

Hesting said that jet service cuts the flight time in half so that the morning flight can depart later and still arrive early enough to make connecting flights. The goal is also to provide the jet service for charter flights, he said.

Jet service could also draw more passengers currently using EAS service in Iron Mountain and Rhinelander, both with around 20,000 boardings annually, Hesting said. The jet service and inline agreements make for easier connections to direct flights from Chicago connections to anywhere in the world.

"Higher level aircraft would help increase boarding," Bonovitz said. "Jets are also more capable aircraft with inclement weather than a prop plane."

Boutique Air officials present included Mat Butcher, director of operations; Brian Kondrad, assistant general manager; and Adam Majewski, director of marketing. They said the company will bring rental cars to Ironwood as an added feature to its service.

Butcher said Boutique's inventory includes a fleet of Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop planes along with Beechcraft King Air twin engine propeller planes, and the Piaggio P.180 Avanti, an Italian executive transport aircraft with twin rear turboprop engines.

The company has an interline agreement with United and American Airlines, he said. The company's user-friendly online scheduling software is easy to navigate and has improved operations, along with mobile phone boarding passes, at home check-in and TSA pre-check and wheelchair access.

"People are more apt to fly on a day off if they don't have to call anyone," Butcher said.

Kondrad said the company has six regional managers and that a high level manager is always on duty for any potential customer issue. The company was the only one of the four with a 24-hour phone line or chat service for real time service as compared to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the others.

Shane Storz, president and CEO of Air Choice One was present with marketing specialist Taylor Wood.

"We have been grateful for the opportunity to provide EAS service to Ironwood for the past five-and-a-half years," Storz said.

The company is looking to expand the number of flights to increase boarding numbers, Storz said. The second of two proposals included 18 weekly round-trips, including five to Minneapolis using a single engine Cessna Grand Caravan, and 13 round-trips to Chicago with a Beachcraft 1900C twin engine plane.

In addition to the 18 EAS flights, Storz said the company would add two additional Minneapolis flights and one additional Chicago flight that are not covered under the EAS reimbursement contract. These are unsubsidized flights but are crucial to increasing boardings, he said.

"We call that the Air Choice One EAS," Storz said.

Wood said that the air service has increased digital marketing and is just unveiling its new website. The goal is to drive more traffic to the site to encourage more people to consider flying to driving.

"We are introducing our Choice+ rewards program for frequent flyers to build points to redeem for free flights," he said.

In the coming year the company expects to take delivery of a Cessna 208 Caravan, a single-engine utility aircraft that is being refit for passenger service, and a twin engine Cessna 408 SkyCourier.

"It's an opportunity to add larger aircraft and continue to grow service."

Mark Cestari, chief commercial officer of Southern Airways Corporation, was present with Captain Bruce Jacobs, a retired commercial pilot who now serves as secretary-treasurer. The two said Southern has a nation-wide network of hubs and service airports from Hawaii to Connecticut.

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The company prefers to base its pilots in the communities they serve, Cestari said. It helps with efficiency and reliability, he said.

"We like keeping fares low in the EAS markets where a lot of people use the interline agreements and we try to work to get gates that are close to American Airlines for seamless connections," Cestari said.

The marketing plan includes partnership incentive programs with discounts for local hotels, colleges, hospitals, municipal government employees who work to help market the airline or are frequent flyers.

Southern would be using the nine-seat Cessna Caravans that Cestari said are durable and do well in northern regions. The company policy is to use a two-pilot crew even though EAS requires only one.

"When you encounter heavy weather you want two people there figuring it out," Cestari said.

He also said that when a cancelation occurs a second plane would be brought in for when there are passengers who want to have the makeup flight within three days.

Southern's proposal is for 18 round-trip flights per week. This would include six flights to Minneapolis and one 12 to Chicago.

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