Is the search for an airlines carrier for Alpena over?
As Alpena residents and Department of Transportation review the proposal by Air Choice One out of St. Louis, Mo., I wonder whether an eight-passenger aircraft, with perhaps a larger plane to be used later, is in the best interests of everyone.
Next week I will fly from Alpena and if past flights are an indication, there will be more than eight passengers on that flight. How then will this service really work? Who is this proposed carrier? And, ultimately, does it really matter what we as a community think?
Let's answer the last question first. As evidence continuously in RFP public documents, believe it or not - yes, government officials really do care about what a community thinks. The latest RFP, extension, for example, came at the request of Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora who asked that as a new government official, he wanted to get caught up with efforts and try everything he could to assist the situation.
In their granting of the extension, DOT officials wrote "we recognize the importance the community places on this issue, and thus will grant the two-week extension." Time and time again in RFP proposals, both for Alpena and other communities, the DOT has been consistent in listening to the concerns of residents.
However, I also need to interject some caution here as well. DOT officials were very clear in a recent statement that the window of opportunity for Alpena was quickly drawing near. In that same announcement of the two-week extension to Feb. 14, they also wrote that they had "a duty to relieve the incumbent, Pinnacle Airlines Corp., of its forced service obligation." They noted the forced service had been in effect in Alpena since Sept. 13.
Which leads then to the question, will Air Choice One's service stack up and meet Essential Air Service (EAS) requirements of the feds? Obviously that is a question only DOT officials can answer, but we do have some insights that make me believe that yes, it will be received favorably.
For one, Air Choice One already receives EAS funding funding for two other Midwest routes (Chicago to Burlington, Iowa, and Chicago to Decatur, Ill.), thus the feds are used to working with them. Secondly, Air Choice One has been a prominent bidder in many other routes that have come up for bid in recent months, which again places their name prominently with DOT officials. Finally, they are seeking $2.1 to $2.7 million in EAS funding, depending on the number of flights offered Alpena. This compares, for instance, to the $3 million Intrepid and Gulfstream were seeking.
In recent rounds of bidding, Air Choice One submitted bids to service a number of communities in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Mississippi, as well as Iron Mountain and Muskegon in Michigan. Ultimately DOT officials selected SkyWest to service Muskegon and as readers will remember, it was the hope of some locally to piggyback with Muskegon to attract SkyWest here on a shared route, so both airports could benefit with a larger plane. Obviously, SkyWest did not bid on the Alpena route in the latest RFP period.
Finally, as to who Air Choice One is, according to its website "Air Choice One was established and incubated as a 'next generation' scheduled commuter airline by Multi-Aero, Inc., a St. Louis, based aviation company. The vision for Air Choice One was to break from the classic commuter stereotype and offer the comfort and convenience of 'First-Class' to all travelers."
In a Sept. 9 story last year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch written by Ken Leiser, Air Choice One CEO Shane Storz said his airline "logged significant growth during the past fiscal year. It's nearly 30,000 passenger boardings represent a 400 percent increase over the previous year."
The story also mentioned the company was working with airlines officials at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on baggage transfer issues and full booking capabilities. Whether those issues have yet been resolved is not known.
Storz, in our news story, said his company normally serves about 15,000 a year in each community. Will Alpena be the next Air Choice One destination with 15,000 residents ready to fly?
A very interested community waits patiently to learn the DOT's ultimate decision.