Airport Authority to recommend Boutique Air for EAS bid

by Scott DCamp
The Thief River Falls Regional Airport Authority is recommending that the United States Department of Transportation award the airport’s Essential Air Service Bid to Boutique Air. 
Commissioners approved a motion to recommend Boutique Air during their meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 17. The recommendation comes one day after Airport Authority commissioners listened to presentations from Boutique Air, Sanfrancisco, Calif., Air Choice One, St. Lous, Mo., and the airport’s current EAS provider, Great Lakes Aviation, Cheyenne, Wyo. 
Airport Manager Joe Hedrick, who is not a voting member of the Airport Authority, said the decision to go with Boutique did not come easy. 
“Air Choice One put in a great bid,” he said. “They worked hard on their bid and made multiple trips to Thief River Falls. I am completely torn between Air Choice One and Boutique.”
Commissioners cited the repeated pre-cancellation of scheduled flights as the primary reason to move away from Great Lakes. 
“Great Lakes has a brand issue,” Hedrick said. “While we’ve seen Great Lakes regularly improve, it was still only 80 percent (flight completion) last month.” Hedrick added that Great Lakes has only completed 75 percent of scheduled flights since service was restored in October 2014.
Hedrick did provide a list of pros and cons for both Air Choice One and Boutique Air. Among Air Choice One’s pros are: an introductory fare of $25 and $59 thereafter for one-way flights; a larger hauling capacity than Boutique at 120 pounds per passenger guaranteed; a conservative approach to new market development; a roomy interior; a $50,000 local marketing budget and very positive reviews from other markets it serves. Air Choice One is also a more established airline, with EAS dating back to 2008 – Boutique Air began offering scheduled service in 2014. 
Among Air Choice One’s cons are a slower aircraft averaging an hour and 20 minutes per flight in air time compared to 56 minutes for Boutique; an unpressurized cabin, meaning that the aircraft can fly no higher than 10,000 feet; no lavatory on board; and crew resource concerns. 
Boutqiue Air features a pressurized cabin with a faster aircraft capable of making the trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 56 minutes. Also, in its short history, Boutique has yet to cancel a flight due to crew shortage. Other pros include a roomy interior, $21,000 in local marketing money and very positive reviews from the other markets it serves. 
Among the cons for Boutique Air are a questional, fragmented growth pattern; slightly higher fares than Air Choice One at $35 for the one-way introductory rate, and $65 thereafter;  and a baggage limit of 35 pounds, with some exceptions. 
Both airlines offer service to Terminal One at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Also, as of now, neither airline has interline agreements or baggage transfers. That means a passenger from Thief River Falls connecting to another flight in Minneapolis will need to deplane, leave the secured area, collect checked baggage and go through security again before boarding the connecting flight. 
Dixie Hoard, commissioner with the Metropolitan Airports Commission, was a special guest of the Airport Authority for Wednesday’s meeting. One of her primary concerns with Air Choice One or Boutique Air is the lack of an interline agreement. She warned that without an interline agreement, passengers may eventually develop the same level of mistrust of the new airline as they currently do with Great Lakes. Passengers won’t want to collect their bags and go through security a second time. 
Airport Advisory Committee Member Dave Odette said it may be difficult for either airline to get an interline agreement with major airlines due to the fact that both are flying under Part 135, while the larger airlines fly under Part 121.
Commissioners discussed both bids and liked both airline’s options for 18 flights per week. Boutique’s bid for 18 non-stop flights per week requires an annual subsidy of $3,537,794. Air Choice One’s bid for 18 round-trips per week requires an annual EAS subsidy of $3,113,861. 
In the end, commissioners liked the pressurized cabin and faster flight times offered by the Pilatus PC 12 aircraft. They also feel the Pilatus aircraft offers a better image for marketing purposes. 
The US DOT will accept comments regarding the EAS bid until March 2. The final decision regarding the airport’s EAS bid will then be made by the US DOT.