WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. — Flights from the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport will go to Charlotte, N.C., starting this fall if the U.S. Department of Transportation accepts a recommendation from the airport’s marketing board.
The Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport Authority voted 3-0 Tuesday to recommend ViaAir from among five airlines bidding to provide federally subsidized Essential Air Service over the next two years, starting Oct. 1. The company has proposed 12 flights a week to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, six nonstop and six stopping in Beckley, all aboard 30-seat planes.
Airport Manager Jeff McDougle said he recommended the authority choose Via based on the company’s performance over the last year-and-a-half at the Raleigh County Memorial Airport in Beckley and the attainable enplanement numbers needed to maintain EAS eligibility.
“I think they’re extremely reliable. They’ve proven that at Beckley,” McDougle said. “They’ve only canceled one flight in a year-and-a-half.”
Silver Airways has been the airport’s carrier for nearly six years, four to Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport and the last 21 months to Washington Dulles International Airport. Since service shifted to D.C., it has been plagued by cancellations, at least twice reaching double digits in a month even without counting weather-related cancellations.
“There’s a bad attitude among corporate (entities) in this area because of the (performance) of Silver,” authority member David Hines said.
McDougle said Via’s performance should draw people back.
“Like any decision with aviation, you just hope you’re making the right one, but they have a good track record with Beckley,” authority Chairman David Scott said. “We just hope the new service will be much better than we’ve had in past years.”
ViaAir is working to build a route structure to bring people to West Virginia and allow West Virginians to fly more affordably, said Janelle Davis, digital marketing specialist for the company, in an emailed statement Tuesday.
“ViaAir is thrilled to be chosen by the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport to provide flight service,” Irit Vizer, the company’s president and CEO, said in the statement. “ViaAir has always believed air service is more than just transportation. Our level of personable service and on-time reliability combined with low fares and no extra fees is what makes the ViaAir experience unique for our guests.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation will give substantial weight to the authority’s recommendation, according to an email from Caitlin Harvey, with the Transportation Secretary’s Office of Public Affairs. Other factors include service reliability and arrangements with a larger carrier at the destination airport.
“We don’t have a timeline for a decision, but we hope it would be within six to eight weeks,” Harvey said.
In 2015, the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Airport recorded just 4,424 enplanements, down from 5,322 in 2014 and 8,126 in 2013.
The decline caused the federal subsidy cost per seat to approach nearly $400 in October. A Department of Transportation rule that has been on the books for years but only started being enforced in 2016 requires that amount to be less than $200 because the local airport is within 210 miles of Port Columbus International Airport.
While the airport expects to receive a waiver on the subsidy requirement this year, the number of enplanements needed to keep the per-seat average under the cap was considered for each of the five bids. Without a waiver, the airport could lose EAS eligibility permanently.
Via had the lowest enplanement target – 4,892 for a $1.94 million subsidy – by a wide margin.
“That’s going to be easy for us to hit, I think, with the service they’re going to provide,” McDougle said.
The company offers service from Beckley to St. Augustine, Fla., for $99 one way, as well as seasonal service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for $78 one way. In both cases, the plane stops in Charlotte before continuing south.
“They’re also going to introduce Orlando service, and they have said that would be $99 one way out of Parkersburg to any of those three destinations,” McDougle said.
Higher enplanement requirements helped push another attractive proposal out of the running.
Aerodynamics Inc. bid to provide six flights a week to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and 12 to Baltimore-Washington International Airport aboard 50-seat regional jets. But to maintain EAS eligibility, the airport would have to log 9,954 enplanements a year, a number it hasn’t exceeded since 2005.
“ADI, we really have a gun to our head,” McDougle said. “When I first heard they wanted to go to Chicago, I loved it.”
In addition, ADI does not have the aircraft in place yet to provide the service, McDougle said. That would have made local airport passengers, “guinea pigs” for new service, Scott said.
Both Via and ADI had interline agreements that allowed passengers to seamlessly transition to flights with larger airlines.
The other three bids came from companies without interline agreements. All three pitched service on eight- or nine-seat aircrafts, though one included an alternate proposal for 30 seats.
“That’s like a step backwards in terms of service,” Scott said of the smaller planes.
McDougle said the bids with smaller planes also included more frequent flights, but agreed the airport would “have a tough time selling the single-engine airplanes with eight seats.”
McDougle said two authority members who were absent Tuesday – Kenyon Cox and Washington County Commissioner Rick Walters – were in agreement with the recommendation.
(Emily Cramer contributed to this story.)