DECATUR — Cape Air representatives on Wednesday said ridership at Decatur Airport is up 15 percent and has continued to rise each month since the company took over as commercial air service provider in February.
But the airline said current projections show that just over 9,000 passengers will fly out of the airport by the end of 2018, short of the goal of 10,000 passengers set by Cape Air and the Decatur Park District, which manages the airport. With less than four months remaining in the year, the airline presented its plan to reach the enplanement goal during a presentation at the park district's board meeting Wednesday afternoon.
"My visit here was to report how we're doing, to listen to feedback and to make sure that we're moving in the right direction," said Andrew Bonney, Cape Air's senior vice president of planning. "I really appreciated everyone making time to provide the feedback we received today."
Decatur is a part of the federal Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies for commercial air service in rural communities. Under the federal program, airports with 10,000 enplanements, or people flying out, by Dec. 31 will receive additional funds for airport improvements — a goal which Decatur has not met in more than a decade.
Bonney said Cape Air recorded a preliminary total of 5,974 enplanements at Decatur Airport through August. To give the airline a better chance of reaching the goal, Bonney said, Cape Air will start offering additional round-trip flights to St. Louis on Saturdays at the airport. Currently, the airline only has one St. Louis flight on Saturdays and two scheduled for Chicago.
"They see that there's an increase in passengers that want to ride to St. Louis on the weekends, so that's why they're going above the EAS program to go ahead and fund a flight on their own to St. Louis," said airport Director Tim Wright.
Other ideas that the airline has proposed to help reach the goal include adding charter flight activity to the overall enplanement goal, as Bonney said those flights also count one-for-one toward the numbers. He said Cape Air also wants to increase promotion of its fares in Decatur and expand its presence within the community, especially toward people who may not have considered the airport as a travel option.
"We love the idea of introducing children who have never been flying before to the airplanes and giving them their first flight," Bonney gave as an example.
Cape Air began its two-year stint as Decatur's commercial air carrier in February after being awarded an EAS contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Air Choice One had been the airport's commercial air carrier since late 2009, but the park board did not support its bid to continue.
Cape Air was selected by the federal department of transportation as Decatur's carrier over SkyWest, a Utah-based airline preferred by the park district and several key business leaders — especially Archer Daniels Midland Co. It would cost $700,000 more to subsidize SkyWest's jet service, the department said, which it felt was unfeasible.
SkyWest appealed the decision on Jan. 10, sparking a months-long back-and-forth between it, Cape Air and ADM over the decision. SkyWest later withdrew its appeal, stating that the process took too long.
Since taking over at the airport, Cape Air has offered multiple, daily round-trip flights to Chicago and St. Louis. The airline also opened a ticket office in downtown Decatur, 101 S. Main Street in suite 101.
Park board Commissioner Bob Brilley II told Bonney that he's heard many compliments about Cape Air's Decatur service, but said some passengers have been inconvenienced after their luggage exceeded the weight limit of the airline's Cessna 402 prop planes.
Bonney acknowledged that a "small handful" of passengers have had issues due to weight and balance, but said that Cape Air has worked hard to accommodate any riders who have had issues with their bags.
One thing that could help alleviate that problem, he said, would be the implementation of the Tecnam Traveller P2012 twin-engine planes that will replace all of Cape Air's fleet of planes starting in 2019. Bonney said it is currently unclear when the new planes will start being used in Decatur.
"They're 35 percent bigger, much roomier and have a more comfortable cabin," Bonney said. "The manufacturer is making them one at a time, so we're continuing to work on exactly what the rollout will be."