ALPENA - It has been almost a year since Delta Airlines announced its intention to discontinue air service to and from the Alpena County Regional Airport. The move left local authorities and the Department of Transportation scrambling to find a viable replacement.
Today the fourth and final request for proposal issued by the federal government will conclude, and if there are bids, a new provider could be appointed soon. After the proposals are opened, the DOT will review them before making a selection.
People in Alpena who are close to the situation said they are confident there will be a suitable bid, but if none are submitted, a fallback plan is in place. Mayor Matt Waligora said information from Sixel Consulting's Mike Mooney and talks with airlines at a recent airline conference in Burbank, Calif., lead him to believe a resolution is near.
"Things look promising from what we have accomplished and from the feedback we got back from Burbank, but we won't know anything for sure until I expect Wednesday morning," Waligora said. "I'm confident. We have done everything we can possibly do, and our consultant has been very proactive in promoting Alpena. Now we just have to wait."
Airport Manager Billi McRoberts said there have been times in the past where bids were received, and other times when there was no response to the RFP. She said nothing can be taken for granted at this point.
"At the end of the day you just never know what is going to happen," she said. "We're hoping for a good bid, but we'll just have to wait and see."
The federal government helps pay for air service in rural areas such as Alpena through the Essential Air Service Program. It provides subsidies to airlines that service smaller, less profitable regions of the country. McRoberts said there is also another option besides EAS, but she said it should only be considered as a last resort. The alternative option could include charter flights to and from Alpena.
"If no bids are received, we do have an option with the Alternate Essential Air Service program, which would allow for us to enter into a grant agreement with the DOT, and we would request proposals and actually hire an airline ourselves," McRoberts said. "That is really not the path we want to take, though. There has only been one other airport to do this, so it is sort of the new frontier of air service, so we would really rather not have to do this."
McRoberts said she doesn't want to make it sound as though safe and dependable transportation can't be achieved with AEAS. She said as long as the local airport falls under the essential air service umbrella, the airport always will have flights of some sort.
"There are some viable possibilities, and it is not all gloom and doom," McRoberts said. "We will have air service one way or the other as long as we are an essential service airport. As long as the government continues that program, we are guaranteed to have air service. It is just a matter of at what level to meet our needs."
Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jackie Krawczak said she is also confident the DOT will have bids to pick through, but agreed with McRoberts that having the alternate EAS to fall back on is comforting.
"It is pointing in the direction that there should be a bid or two from the discussions we have had with the consultant," Krawczak said. "The alternate EAS also gives us a viable backup plan, which is encouraging, but the last several months everyone has worked so hard together, and the consultant has done a very good job of sharing what works for this community and what doesn't work. Overall I feel optimistic."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.