Jan 28, 2023
Responding to the Post Journal editor’s opinion piece: “Is There Anything Left to Study When It Comes to the County Airport?”
The editor’s rhetorical “Yes” offered a rather cynical rational for ending further debate on the issue of pursuing commercial air service at the Chautauqua County Jamestown Airport (JHW). I concur with the editor’s desire to bring closure to the debate, and I share the obvious frustration that we have not resolved the question of commercial air service viability in earlier studies. I’d like to offer a more nuanced answer to the rhetorical question expressed by the Journal’s editors.
An Air Service Development Study is a business intelligence activity undertaken by airport authorities and commercial air carriers to characterize and quantify the need for commercial air service in specific markets. Aviation analysists look at traveler preferences, spending patterns, flight schedules, airport catchment demographics and other metrics to identify destinations and schedules that offer potential for profitable routes. As with any business venture, a well-developed business plan based on objective market research and a clear understanding of the consumer demand are essential ingredients for business success. Essential Air Service (EAS) administrators at the U.S. Department of Transportation rely heavily on these studies in determining if an EAS proposal is viable and, in fact, have urged the county to engage reputable industry consultants to conduct the study as a condition of any further consideration of EAS-subsidized commercial service. So, why is the Department of Transportation so insistent that the county commission an independent study? In part because:
A. It has not been (independently) studied before.
Historically, the county, in their role as airport authority, has relied upon prospective air carriers to analyze the potential market for fares, optimum destinations, schedules and competing carriers/routes. In an open, free and competitive marketplace, the air carrier has strong profit and risk avoidance motives to perform due diligence and undertake detailed market analysis before investing in new routes or levels of service. That business rigor gets diluted and contorted a bit when the investment opportunities are skewed by government subsidies like the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. The business analytics gets even more conflicted when the air carrier(s) weigh their options amongst multiple markets each with risk management and subsidy packages specific to the candidate routes/destinations. Recognizing that the airport authority and airline suitors have unique equities and interests (and risks) specific to their business and constituents, the airport authority should evaluate the community’s specific interests and judge independently if the public’s needs can be best served by a commercial route tailored to the community served by the airport.
Previous studies undertaken by the County include the 2016 Economic Impact Analysis & Feasibility Study, and the more recent Jamestown Airport Masterplan completed in 2022. The 2016 study evaluated business structures and operations management strategies for the county’s two airports and the 2022 masterplan focused on facilities and infrastructure modernization, rehabilitation and capital investment planning aimed primarily at meeting FAA standards for continued operation of the airport in conformance with CFR 45, Part 139 standards for public, commercial service airports.
B. Past performance by previous airlines is emphatically not a valid predictor of future market potential or carrier performance.
The history of Southern Airways Express (SAE) and its progenitors’ performance on the JHW EAS contract is deplorable. It is a history of commitments made and broken over the course of several years. A litany of bad decisions and missed opportunities by our partnered air carriers over the past 10 years is an illuminating case study in why the county should undertake and oversee an independent analysis of our market. Southern made calculated unilateral decisions harmful to the airport and public interest; relocating aircraft and crews, reduced flight schedules, release of contracted pilots, to name a few, without engaging the EAS program office or the County. Airport and TSA staff documented and confronted SAE management with their abysmal customer service record and county and city leaders implored the airline to implement critical remedies. SAE ignored our entreaties, so the outcome was predictable. In rejecting subsequent proposals for EAS-contract routes with a new carrier, the Department of Transportation relied upon the fact of that failure without unraveling the airline’s motives and actions, and in so doing, has extrapolated an opinion that future attempts to operate a commercial route to JHW are similarly doomed. To be clear however, the Dept. of Transportation has not foreclosed consideration of future proposals for EAS-subsidized air service to JHW. Rather, they have challenged county leadership with showing a compelling business case supported by rigorous market research as the basis of any future proposal.
C. The air travel marketplace is rapidly evolving; what we thought we knew about the commercial air travel three, five, 10 … 30 years ago has changed.
Proliferation of remote workforce, business and recreationally travel patterns, on-line direct ticket sales outlets, evolving fare structures and low-cost carrier entry into new markets, enhanced code sharing and ticket reciprocity agreements, and perhaps most alarmingly, the incidence of unrulily passenger behavior, are a few of the many factors that are determining where, when and how people travel. The complexion of the air travel market has changed dramatically in the past three years. Crafting a business case for air service under any service delivery model requires contemporaneous travel pattern data and objective analysis of consumer needs and our local economy.
D. The Jamestown airport is built to and is being operated in compliance with FAA Part 139 standards for airports capable of operating commercial flights. But we’ve been operating for five years without an airline. There are opportunity costs to this dichotomy that should be resolved in favor of better value.
If, as air service pundits have speculated, the era of commercial air service in Chautauqua County is past, then both the capital investment plan and operations model for the airport should be “right sized” to reflect the new reality. Heretofore, the FAA and county leaders have deferred any business model realignment on the presumption that commercial air service will return. The air service development study should be used as the forcing function to chart the future investment strategy and operating model for the airport pivoting on the economic viability of commercial service.
No one, not the Department of Transportation, nor prospective air carriers, nor local business partners, nor potential destination airports, will give us the time of day if we neglect to do our homework and establish a viable business case based on good market intelligence. Demonstration of good business practice and informed stewardship of public resources is the hallmark of a community capable of growth and worthy of outside investment.
An EAS proposal is a joint business plan formulated between an air carrier and an airport authority. A successful proposal requires active management participation by both entities. The airport authority is the appropriate partner to gauge the demand of their constituency’s appetite for air service. We are fortunate to have a management team at the airport under the Direction of Shannon Barnhart that understands and has successfully implemented partnerships between air carriers and public airports. The stakes are high; assessing market potential for resurrecting air service at JHW is the starting point, if and how we continue to invest heavily in operating capabilities and infrastructure to host commercial airlines will hinge upon the results of the proposed study. With the active support of the county executive and legislative leadership and with insightful input from our business community, the right team is in place and the time is upon us to do the necessary homework.
Ron Almeter is the former Chautauqua County Airports Manager from 2017 through 2021.
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