$1 million grant flies to another city; local commuter flights won’t take off
by Bill Mardis Commonwealth Journal
Reinstating commuter airline service at Lake Cumberland Regional Airport is slow to takeoff because of failure to get a $1 million grant from Small Community Air Service Development, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“We didn’t get the money,” said Martin Shearer, executive director of Somerset-Pulaski County Development Foundation. “It went to somebody else.”
“We have not really made any progress,” said Shearer. “We don’t know at this point how and when we will get the money.” However, he said the federal grant is an annual thing and the local airport can apply again this summer.
Failure to get the $1 million grant apparently has muted early-on optimism following a regional survey of airline travelers that indicates a robust market at Lake Cumberland Regional Airport. The study indicates a potential annual enplanement of 142,166 passengers who would use airline service in and out of the Somerset airport.
“This is not just Pulaski County ... this is the region,” said Luke B. Schmidt, consultant for the study. Schmidt called airline service a tremendous trigger for economic development.
Shearer still has in hand a written proposal for airline service submitted by two companies: Public Charters Inc., of Avoca, Pennsylvania, and Corporate Flight Management of Smyrna, Tennessee. The two companies propose to operate daily (including weekends) nonstop round-trip flights between the Somerset airport and Nashville International Airport.
“As of today, we still have the proposal ... I hope it will still be here when we get the money,” Shearer said candidly.
The proposal, as described earlier by Shearer and Schmidt, seems just what the doctor ordered for Somerset and surrounding region. The aircraft would be a 19-passenger British Aerospace BAE Jetstream J31turboprop. The Jetstream J31 is a state-of-the-art, high performance pressurized aircraft with stand-up cabin, lavatory and two pilots. It cruises at 265 mph with a service ceiling of 25,000 feet, above most weather. The Jetstream can easily take off and land on the 5,800-foot runway at the Somerset airport, Schmidt noted.
The flight to Nashville is about 45 minutes. It would connect to flights in Nashville operated by nine airlines, including low-cost Southwest Airlines. The are 49 nonstop destinations out of the Nashville airport.
All airlines, opening a new hub, lose money for a time after start-up, Schmidt said. He estimates it would take a year for a local commuter service to become profitable and the local airport, the community or somebody would have to cover the losses. That’s where the $1 million grant comes in.
If the money becomes available, a contract for a minimum revenue guarantee would be made with the carrier to make up losses established by audit,” Schmidt said. “We would only make up verified losses in revenue,” Shearer emphasized.
Shearer and Schmidt said attractiveness of commuter service in Somerset would be convenient location, time saved and free parking.
“We could be ready to go in four or five months after a source of funds is identified,” Shearer said. Public Charters would be responsible for ticket distribution, passenger check-in, boarding, baggage, cargo handling and all other ground functions. Corporate Flight Management, serving as the direct carrier, would be solely responsible for flying, aircraft, aircraft maintenance and flight crews.
Screening of passengers would be done at Lake Cumberland Regional Airport’s state-of-the-art terminal, making it quick and easy to board flights out of Nashville.
Schmidt said the two carriers making the proposal for commuter service in and out of Somerset assure a rigid flight schedule to and from Nashville. Only interruptions would be weather or mechanical problems.
A Florida-based commuter airline operated out of Lake Cumberland Regional Airport, first to Nashville and then to Washington, D.C., for a little more than two years. It was subsidized with about $900,000 obtained by Congressman Hal Rogers from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $100,000 in local matching funds. No sustaining local source of funding developed before the federal funds were exhausted and the airline shut down February 19, 2010.