DECATUR — Cape Air, a Massachusetts-based airline, will replace Air Choice One as the provider of commercial flights out of Decatur Airport, pending approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to recommend the company as the airport's next air service carrier with a four-year contract during a special meeting Friday afternoon.
Commercial flights in Decatur are federally subsidized through the Essential Air Service program, which supports air service in small communities.
"We're looking forward to it," said board President Bob Brilley II. "It was a tough decision for the park board to make, and I think it was a very good decision to do what we did."
Friday's decision came after representatives of Air Choice One, SkyWest Airlines and Cape Air presented their proposals to the board on Monday.
Founded in 1989, Cape Air currently operates a fleet of 84 Cessna 402, four Britten-Norman Islander and two ATR 42 aircrafts that provide year-round service to multiple destinations in the United States, the Caribbean and Micronesia.
The airline also provides Essential Air Service to some communities in Montana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Vermont.
"Ninety percent of the communities that they operate with are (Decatur's) size, and that's a very, very important thing," Brilley said.
Brilley said Wednesday that the board would make a recommendation to the Department of Transportation for a two-year contract with the company. Brilley said Friday that he misspoke at the previous meeting.
Commissioner Stacey Young, Vice President Chris Harrison and Brilley voted to recommend the four-year contract with Cape Air, while Commissioners Jack Kenny and Chris Riley voted in favor of a two-year contract with the airline.
Kenny and Riley supported Utah-based SkyWest's proposal, which would have brought jet service to Decatur. Both commissioners said local passengers and representatives of companies like Archer Daniels Midland Co. would benefit from the opportunity to fly on larger, faster jet airplanes.
Brilley, Young and Harrison said ridership at the airport would be hurt if they recommended SkyWest, as the airline would only offer two daily flights to Chicago.
Under Cape Air's proposal, the company would offer three round-trip flights a day to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and four round-trip flights a day to O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Air Choice One, Decatur's current air carrier, offers the same amount of flights at the airport.
Kenny said he would have preferred if the board recommended a two-year contract with Cape Air, because it meant less commitment to the airline if its performance didn't meet the board's standards. With a four-year contract, Harrison said Cape Air would have a better opportunity to gain traction in Decatur.
If the Department of Transportation accepts the board's recommendation of Cape Air, Kenny said that he will ultimately be supportive of the partnership.
"We want to do what's good for the community," he said.
The terms of the Essential Air Program require the park board to submit its recommendation to the Department of Transportation, which oversees the program.
According to the department's website, it will consider five factors when deciding whether to approve or deny the recommendation. Those factors include:
- The demonstrated reliability of the applicant in providing scheduled air service;
- The contractual and marking arrangements the applicant has made with a large carrier to ensure service beyond the hub airport;
- The interline agreements that the applicant has made with larger carriers to allow passengers and cargo of the applicant at the hub airport to be transported by the larger carrier(s) through one reservation, ticket and baggage check-on;
- The preferences of the actual and potential users of air transportation at the eligible place, giving substantial weight to the views of the elected officials representing the users of the service; and
- Whether the air carrier has included a plan in its proposal to market its service to the community
Park District Executive Director Bill Clevenger said the Department of Transportation will make its own decision on what carrier will provide Essential Air Service to Decatur if the board's recommendation is denied.
Cape Air CEO Dan Wolf told the board on Monday that the airline abides by the safety standards for regional and major airlines, as well as for corporate, government and helicopter operations.
Wolf also said Cape Air is in the process of replacing the Cessna 402 planes that it uses for regional flights with the Tecnam P2012 Traveller, which is a twin-engine utility aircraft.
If Cape Air becomes the commercial air carrier for Decatur Airport, Wolf said it will house its planes at the facility, and will construct a ticket-selling booth in the city. He also said the airline is willing to be flexible with its scheduling and ticket pricing, and will be open to feedback from the community and the board.
Wolf said the frequency of flights that leave Decatur Airport will be helpful in the district's pursuit of reaching 10,000 annual enplanements. An enplanement represents when a passenger boards a flight that originates in Decatur.
Reaching that goal would allow the Decatur Airport to receive more federal money for infrastructure improvements.
"I've got a lot of confidence in them," Brilley said of Cape Air. "To really get my confidence, it takes a lot."