We didn’t set out for this issue to have so much about Southern Airways Express, but it turned out that way. And in a good way.
Southern, you see, is the Florida airline that stepped in to provide regular commercial service to El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison after Seaport Airlines of Portland, Oregon, filed for bankruptcy in September 2016. Southern, like Seaport, received federal Essential Air Service subsidies adequate to make serving small cities economically viable.
There will always be a philosophical disagreement about EAS. Is air service essential enough that taxpayers should subsidize private companies because there isn’t enough consumer demand? We could argue it both ways, but the cities and airports served by EAS, in Arkansas and elsewhere, don’t struggle to answer that question at all. And Congress is on their side.
When Seaport went bankrupt, EAS airports were left in the lurch, and the subsequent selection of Southern Airways Express by the U.S. Department of Transportation was not greeted warmly in Arkansas. The El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison airports had recommended some other provider, but you know about beggars and choosers.
The disappointment seems to have been short-lived. In February, the DOT renewed Southern’s contract for two more years. It had the unanimous support of Hot Springs city leaders, according to Mayor Pat McCabe, who is especially happy that Southern has kept its promise to keep one-way fares below $100.
According to the company, it has completed 99.4% of its scheduled flights in the past 10 months — reliability that is confirmed by Judy McCutcheon, manager of the Boone County Regional Airport at Harrison. “Southern came in here and they’ve never canceled flights, which is a huge plus,” she said.
There can be no disagreement that a service for which consumers and taxpayers are sharing the bill should be reliable and fairly priced.