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El Dorado Airport to Appeal Southern Airways Selection

3 min read

The Department of Transportation announced Friday that it has selected Southern Airways Express LLC of Memphis to service three Arkansas airports left in the lurch after the September bankruptcy of SeaPort Airlines, even though all three recommended a different airline. One plans to appeal the agency’s decision. 

The new contract runs from Jan. 1, 2017-Feb. 28, 2019, according to an order released by the DOT on Friday.

Southern will receive nearly $7.1 million to provide 18 weekly non-stop trips to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to passengers from El Dorado ($2.3 million); 12 weekly non-stop round trips to DFW and six weekly non-stop round trips to Memphis International Airport to passengers from Harrison ($2.4 million); and 18 weekly non-stop round trips to DFW to passengers from Hot Springs ($2.4 million).

The recommended airlines, had they been selected, would have been paid a combined $13.6 million in subsidies under the federal Essential Air Service program.

The South Arkansas Regional Airport in El Dorado and Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison recommended Contour Airlines of Smyrna, Tennessee, to fly under the EAS program.

City-owned Hot Springs Memorial Field airport recommended Boutique Air of San Francisco, California.

Tim Johnson, manager of the El Dorado airport, said commissioners were disappointed because they felt Contour would best meet the community’s needs. They plan to appeal the DOT’s decision and ask the agency to review its process, he said.

The Harrison and Hot Springs airports did not immediately return a call, and Arkansas Business will update this story.

If selected, Contour would have flown a twin-engine turboprop Jetstream 31 on two round trips to Dallas and one round trip to Nashville every day from the El Dorado airport. The airline would have received $4.9 million in subsidies.

Southern plans to fly smaller, single-engine Cessna Caravan planes to Dallas only.

Johnson said the new EAS service would be very similar to what the airport had before the SeaPort bankruptcy. He said SeaPort, until the last year it was in operation, took passengers to Dallas. In its final year, it switched service to Houston, he said.

Johnson said the DOT usually approves the recommendations of airport commissions in these situations and has done so in the past for the El Dorado airport. Although he didn’t want to comment on why that didn’t happen this time, he said, “Cost is obviously a factor. The type of equipment that the airlines are flying was a factor. I know all three cities were choosing airlines that would provide aircraft that would be larger and better serve the market.”

Johnson added that the timeline for when flights would be offered is up in the air for now.

At the Harrison airport, Contour would have offered two round trips to Dallas and one round trip to Memphis every day, also on twin-engine turboprop Jetstream 31 aircraft, for $4.7 million compared to the $2.4 million Southern will get if the DOT decision stands.

Boutique planned to fly a King Air 350 for two round trips to Dallas and one round trip to Atlanta every day from the Hot Springs airport for $4 million compared to the $2.4 million Southern could receive under the DOT-approved contract.

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