Subsidies Bolstered List of Busiest Airports in Arkansas

by Jordan King  on Monday, Jul. 1, 2013 12:00 am  

The four Arkansas airports that saw the biggest rise in passenger boardings in 2011 had one thing in common: government-subsidized air service offered through SeaPort Airlines Inc.

Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison, Memorial Field in Hot Springs, South Arkansas Regional Airport/Goodwin Field in El Dorado and Jonesboro Municipal Airport saw a median increase of 73 percent in boardings when compared with 2010. The figures for 2011 used to rank this year’s list of the state’s busiest airports are the latest available from the Federal Aviation Administration.

SeaPort is a scheduled commuter airline service headquartered in Portland, Ore. SeaPort was founded in Juneau, Alaska, in 1982 as Wings of Alaska, a name the company still does business under. Tim Siber, executive vice president of SeaPort, said the company currently maintains a fleet of 16 passenger planes.

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In 2011 SeaPort offered subsidized air service to the four Arkansas airports through the federal Essential Air Service program. EAS was created to ensure that smaller communities had access to scheduled air service after the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act “gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service,” the U.S. Department of Transportation says. The DOT says that $15.4 million in EAS funds have been provided for Arkansas air service in the past two years.

SeaPort began offering flights in Arkansas in October 2009, and today it operates in Harrison, El Dorado and Hot Springs. SeaPort discontinued service to Jonesboro Municipal Airport near the end of 2011, and the airport now receives government-subsidized air service from Air Choice One Airlines of St. Louis.

Siber said SeaPort was forced to discontinue service to Jonesboro because it was too close to Memphis. He said that because the airline could offer only three flights a day under the EAS program, potential passengers often chose to drive 79 miles to the Memphis International Airport instead of waiting for a SeaPort flight. While Jonesboro saw an 89 percent increase in passenger boardings — from 522 in 2010 to 989 in 2011 — the numbers were dangerously low as far as EAS funding is concerned.

The Federal Aviation Administration & Modernization Act of 2012 required that, beginning with the 2013 fiscal year in October 2012, communities less than 175 driving miles from a medium- or large-hub airport must maintain an average of 10 passenger boardings per service day to remain in the EAS program. Because of the Jonesboro Municipal Airport’s proximity to Memphis, its EAS funding would have been in jeopardy if the same requirement had been in place in 2011.

Air Choice One announced in August that ridership at Jonesboro Municipal Airport increased 300 percent in early 2012 compared with SeaPort’s numbers for the same period in 2011. This increase, if sustained, suggests that the airport will be significantly closer to meeting the 10-passenger average when the stipulation goes into effect.

SeaPort Changes

Siber said SeaPort is making changes to reduce costs at the three Arkansas airports it still serves. He said the company has adopted “aggressive pricing” in the form of discounted fares in an effort to increase ridership, including a $39 flight from Hot Springs to Dallas. The company is also shifting from the nine-passenger Pilatus PC-12 plane to the similarly sized Cessna Caravan. The Caravan consumes less fuel and is easier to maintain because parts are more readily available, Siber said. A majority of the company’s fleet will be Caravans by the end of the year, he added.

George Downie, the Memorial Field airport director in Hot Springs, said he regrets seeing the Pilatus go. The Pilatus is “just a great aircraft for our type of service,” Downie said. He said that while SeaPort’s Caravans will be newer than the Pilatus planes, they will not be as fast or as quiet.



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