Two airlines interested in providing commuter air service to and from the Shoals under the Essential Air Service program have submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is proposing flights to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a 34-seat Saab 340 B turboprop aircraft.
Air Choice One of St. Louis, Mo., is offering six options that involve air service to Atlanta or the Memphis International Airport on a variety of eight-seat aircraft, including twin-engine planes.
A committee composed of members of the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport’s board, the Shoals Chamber of Commerce and the chamber’s Air Services Committee will review the proposals and make a recommendation that will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which administers the EAS program.
The EAS program subsidizes airlines to serve approximately 140 rural communities nationwide that otherwise would not receive any scheduled commercial air service.
Delta Airlines currently provides the air service, but company officials have made it clear they want to leave the Shoals market, citing changes in the company’s business strategy.
Under EAS protocol, Delta cannot discontinue the local service until a suitable replacement is found.
Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley said comments from the community about the two latest proposals will be accepted until May 10.
Mickey Bowman, vice president for Essential Air Service for Silver Airways, said the airline’s proposal would have to be accepted by not only the Shoals, but also the Mississippi communities of Tupelo, Greenville and Hattiesburg/Laurel, as well as Greenbrier/White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
“What it means is we would need the support from all the communities,” Bowman said. “We’re basically creating an operation in Atlanta.”
He said for that effort to be successful, the airline would need to transport as many passengers as possible.
Bowman said Silver’s proposal was developed based on what the communities have stated they want in an air carrier.
The aircraft likely to be used is an upgraded version of the aircraft used by Delta in the Shoals before it switched to the 50-seat regional jet more than a year ago.
Bowman said travelers can purchase tickets through the Silver Airways website or various travel sites such as Orbitz and Expedia.
He said the airline has an interline agreement, meaning baggage would be transferred to a Delta Air Lines flight in Atlanta.
If the proposal is selected, Bowman said the airline would work on an agreement to have the airline listed on Delta’s website.
The airline is offering 24 weekly non-stop flights to Atlanta.
Silver Airways, formerly known as Gulfstream Airlines, was awarded the Shoals’ EAS contract in 2011, but withdrew when it could not convince Delta to enter into a code sharing agreement.
Air Choice One has offered proposals before, but they were rejected because the airline planned on using a single-engine Cessna Caravan. The only criteria for the Shoals EAS contract is that service be provided on a twin-engine aircraft.
This time around, Air Choice One is offering six different options to Muscle Shoals, Tupelo, Greenville and Hattiesburg/Laurel with a variety of community pairings and aircraft.
One option involves the Cessna Caravan, while the others would utilize eight-seat, twin-engine Piper Navaho and Jetstream aircraft. Air Choice One Chief Executive Officer Shane Storz said the Jetstream would be configured to seat 18 passengers in the second year of the contract.
All but one of the proposals involve flights to the Memphis International Airport. One proposal involves flights from Muscle Shoals to Atlanta, with the option of also flying to Memphis.
The options propose 24 round-trip flights per week and 18 flights per week if the service is upgraded to the 18-seat Jetstream aircraft.
“We’d love to be there,” Storz said. “We understand the communities have to be comfortable with getting something they know will work.”
Based on Air Choice One’s proposal, the airline is currently working with major airlines on interline ticketing agreements.
“We have and will continue to take every action possible to actively pursue a mutually beneficial (e-ticket) with Delta into the Memphis hub,” the proposal states.
The committee that will review the two proposals will include Northwest Alabama Regional Airport Director Barry Griffith, Shoals Chamber of Commerce President Steve Holt, and airport board members Joe McKinney, Rick Elliott, Braxton Ashe and Barry Auchly.
“We’ve just received the proposals and the committee will review them and make a recommendation to the Air Services Committee,” Griffith said.
The Air Services Committee will pass its recommendation on to the airport board.
Griffith, members of the Air Services Committee and others agree that Atlanta is the preferred destination.
Airport boardings when service to Atlanta was provided by Delta Air Lines averaged 705 passengers per month during a 21-month period, while service to Memphis averaged 399 passengers per month during an 18-month period, according to Auchly.
Air Services Committee members agreed Tuesday that the Atlanta destination is the key to success of local air service, along with a ticketing agreement with the local airline and Delta.
The type of aircraft was a factor, but appears to be secondary to destination and ticketing convenience.
“If we could get to Atlanta, we could grow this thing,” Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford said.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.