DECATUR - Air Choice One is celebrating one year at Decatur Airport with a marked increase in passengers, though it still faces hurdles with baggage agreements.
The St. Louis-based air carrier flew its first flight from Decatur to St. Louis on Dec. 15, 2009, and began sending flights to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago four weeks later. It offers three daily flights to each city on a Grand Cessna Caravan, which has one engine and can carry eight passengers in addition to two pilots.
"Air Choice One, in particular, has worked hard in trying to re-establish in the community's thinking apparatus that if you want to go on an airplane, you can do it from Decatur," Airport Director Joe Attwood said.
Attwood attributed a drop in the airport's use in part to problems with Regions Air, which served the airport from 2006 to 2007, and a lackluster effort from Great Lakes Aviation, which served the airport from 2007 to 2009. For a stint in 2007, Mesa Airlines also flew passengers to Chicago's Midway Airport.
Between Dec. 15, 2009, and the end of November, Air Choice One flew 1,773 passengers out of Decatur Airport. The number is a marked increase from 620 passengers out of the airport between Jan. 1 and Dec. 14, 2009.
Numbers provided by the air carrier show a steady increase in passengers from month to month. In January, it flew 36 passengers out of the airport, and by November, 369 used Air Choice One.
The air carrier is attempting to draw business by ingratiating itself with the community. More than 200 people attended an open house it sponsored in September. In February, the air carrier will hold a breakfast for local travel agents. It also offers sponsorships to local nonprofit organizations, and two Air Choice One employees have applied to volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club of Decatur.
"Their relationship with the community is really an excellent overture on their part," Attwood said.
The air carrier has hit a snag in reaching baggage agreements with major airlines, which would allow passengers to check bags when they board and pick them up at their destinations.
Air Choice One marketing director Jacqueline Donohoo said problems arose because the hosting system the air carrier used to make reservations was not compatible with the systems used by major airlines.
In August, a breakthrough came when Air Choice One achieved a baggage agreement with United Airlines. Passengers who board in another location and fly into Decatur won't have to worry about rechecking their bags, but people who fly from Decatur to board a connecting flight have to check their bags again at their destinations.
Donohoo said the air carrier hoped to fix that soon and obtain similar agreements with other airlines. It just switched to a new hosting system about three weeks ago, she said.
"It's going to move us where we need to be," she said.
Don Luy, president of the Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners, which oversees the airport, said the air carrier still needs to work on its baggage agreements, but he was pleased with its progress in other areas.
"You always look at trends, and the trend with Air Choice One is definitely up," Luy said. "Hopefully, they will continue to make strides with luggage, and we've done some of that already."
The air carrier receives a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Essential Air Service program, which helps small communities maintain air service. Its contract calls for the federal government to pay Air Choice One $3.08 million for two years.