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Southern Airways Keeps Bringing EAS Reliability to 3 Cities

4 min read

Southern Airways Express has not only retained its three federal Essential Air Service contracts in Arkansas but has continued to be highly reliable despite a pandemic that has pummeled the industry for more than a year now, officials say.

That reliability was cited as it remained the airports’ carrier of choice despite hotter competition for contracts.

In addition, the airports are getting “bonus” flights to Memphis and Dallas. They will also be connected to each other with flights that are expected to reap the benefits of trending regional tourism.

The EAS is a federal program that subsidizes smaller carriers so they can profitably offer a minimal level of scheduled air service to smaller communities.

Southern gained EAS contracts for El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison after Seaport Airlines of Portland, Oregon, landed in bankruptcy in 2016.

In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation renewed Southern’s two-year contract to continue providing services in Arkansas. The contract for the three cities, worth $15.9 million, went into effect on March 1, 2019.

In February of this year, the total price of the renewed contract was $16.6 million. Air Choice One of St. Louis is the only other EAS provider in the state, serving Jonesboro Municipal Airport. Neither that carrier nor the airport returned a reporter’s phone calls.

Update: Air Choice One Will Bid to Keep EAS Contract in Jonesboro

In interviews, Judy McCutcheon, manager of Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison, and Glen Barentine, director at Hot Springs Memorial Field, said essentially the same thing: They recommended renewal because of the carrier’s good track record.

That record is a 99.8% completion rate in Arkansas during the past year, according to Keith Sisson, chief marketing officer for Southern.

McCutcheon put it this way: “Southern, they’ve been here. We knew what we were getting and they were reliable. And that’s so important for a small commuter. “All we have to offer is customer service and reliability. That’s all we have to sell because we’re small, and with Southern Airways, our numbers and our boardings have been the best they’ve ever been.”

She added, “We weren’t going to let them go if we could help it.”

Barentine said the Hot Springs airport saw the most EAS bids it had ever seen last year. He believes that’s because the pandemic made the aviation business “very questionable” and many were “looking for anything to secure revenue.”

Southern was still his airport’s first choice.

“I feel like they’re committed to the community. … When they say they’re going to bring you somewhere, they’re doing it. I’ve noticed that they brought in spare planes, spare crews, alternate routes — from using El Dorado’s aircraft to Harrison’s aircraft,” Barentine said.

He is also pleased that Hot Springs will become a “mini hub” on weekends as Southern is offering a few more flights to Memphis along with the flights to its sister EAS airports.

Sisson said, “It’s a really, really cool program where we’re, for the first time in a long time, reconnecting the state of Arkansas from top to bottom.” He said that will mean passengers can fly to Hot Springs from El Dorado or Harrison to check out the racetrack and recently expanded casino there, fly to El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District for festivals or fly to Harrison to enjoy attractions in northwest Arkansas or Branson, Missouri.

In addition, passenger counts are gradually improving in both Hot Springs and Harrison, Barentine and McCutcheon said.

Sisson said passenger counts at the three Arkansas airports were still down about 43% for January-February 2021 compared with the same period last year (the pandemic struck in March 2020), but that is better than anywhere else in Southern’s continental system.

“So Arkansas is leading the resurgence, when it comes to getting the passenger counts back to their pre-COVID levels,” Sisson said. “And it’s trending up every month. I mean we’re seeing a slight increase, … a nominal double-digit increase every month on passenger counts in Arkansas.”

He said Southern plans to stick around because the three airports are “a fantastic footprint for us” and good partners.

As for the EAS program as a whole, “Well, I think the program is in good standing with members of Congress and with the Department of Transportation. I don’t see the program having any major changes anytime soon.”

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