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Last week the Jamestown Gazette sat down with Southern Airways executive, Chief Marketing Officer R. Keith Sisson and Airport Director Ron Almeter at the Chautauqua County Airport. The prospects for restoring reliable low-cost air travel – along with some highly innovative solutions – were on the docket.
On The Hot Seat
“The plan is to restore confidence in the reliability of flights,” Almeter said following a meeting between Southern Airways Express, community leaders, County Executive Vince Horrigan and County Executive-elect George Borrello. “Southern Airways is on the hot seat,” Almeter said.
Gazette: Thank you for meeting with us, Mr. Sisson. Obviously, something has gone wrong. Can you explain what that was?
Southern Airways Express: We took over in February 2016 from Sun Air. When we started off we flew a record number of passengers month after month out of Jamestown. Every single month in 2016, with the exception of December, we beat the previous three and four years’ mark established by the previous airline. We were doing great.
But in December we had a problem. And we have had a problem for the last year. It has taken us 12 months to fix the problem.
JG: And what was that problem?
SAE: The national pilot shortage was the problem. Pilots are retiring faster today, all across the country, than new pilots are getting through the training process. Our pilot corps was down to 24 pilots serving nine communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia. A lot of airlines our size went out of business because of it.
We know we have upset some regular passengers in the past because we did not deliver the product. In the last year, we had to cancel a lot of flights due to the lack of pilots. We got a pretty bad reputation in town because of it. People would book their travel with us but then could not get a plane to Pittsburgh and make their connections. It has been a bad year.
JG: What did you try first?
SAE: Sometimes we provided rental cars or a shuttle or moved a plane from Bradford, PA to pick up a couple of passengers here on the way to Pittsburgh. We looked at all kinds of ways that we could help the passenger. We spent over $1 million in the past year across our system on passenger re-accommodations. We think we created some good will by attempting to do that.
JG: How have you solved the problem?
SAE: We became the most innovative airline in the country in fixing the national pilot shortage for our operation. Instead of competing with the big airlines for pilots, we partnered with them. We both needed new, young pilots.
We partnered with Mesa Airlines, an airline that has contracts with American Airlines. They hire our first officers from day one. A new first officer at Southern is also a Mesa pilot. We just keep them an extra 6 months as captains after we fully train them, then we send them all to Mesa. Next year we’ll send them 24 pilots, where before they were getting just about zero. Mesa and Southern both gain.
We’ve also hired retired pilots as captains. This places a seasoned pilot who has experienced just about everything there is to experience in the air into the seat beside a young pilot. Our pilot training is very impressive. Only pilots who are already licensed can enter our program, which includes intensive ground school, flight simulators and operational training. Our first officers can enter training with no less than 250 hours of flight time. A captain’s rating with us requires 1,200 hours in the cockpit.
The Big Fix
Because of this, we quadrupled our pilot core in the last year from 24 pilots to almost 100. As of about three weeks ago, that has solved our problem, and we did it with the most innovative program in the country dealing with the national pilot shortage. Southern Airways Express is now the second largest commuter airline in the United States.
JG: Is that on paper, or are we really seeing results?
SAE: We are running a perfect 100% schedule out of Jamestown so far this month. That’s four flights per day to Pittsburg with nine seats per flight. We fly 26 flights per week here, counting a lighter schedule on weekends. Every passenger who was booked for the month of November out of Jamestown has flown.
We also know that about 90% of the people in the community have never given us a chance. For those people we really want to tell them, “We have a good operation now. We would love to have you come and give us a chance.
Pittsburgh is the hub for Jamestown, NY, Harrisburg, Bradford, Franklin, Altoona, Lancaster, DuBois, and Johnstown in PA, Hagerstown in Maryland and Morgantown in West Virginia. The “Pitt-Connector” links passengers from all those communities to American, United, Delta, Spirit, Southwest, and other major airlines in Pittsburg.
JG: What makes Jamestown so important to you?
SAE: The Pitt connector is a three-way partnership between the Pittsburgh airport, Southern Airways, and the hometown communities we serve. Maintaining that network is important when it comes time to bargain for the government contracts. We are required to maintain outstanding service.
The national Essential Air Service (EAS) program was developed to guarantee that small communities could maintain scheduled air service with access to the National Air Transportation System by subsidizing service to a large-hub airport, in this case, Pittsburg. The Department of Transportation (DOT) currently subsidizes commuter air carriers like Southern Airways in 115 communities in the lower 48 states that otherwise would not have any scheduled air service.
JG: What kind of planes do you fly?
SAE: We fly the Cessna Caravan 208, a fantastic plane for commuter operations. It has nine leather upholstered seats behind the pilots – every one is both an aisle seat and a window seat – and a big cargo pod. Luggage is never an issue. Flight time is about 55 minutes to Pittsburgh. It is a very convenient service. We have a fleet of 21 airplanes and we run 106 flights every day.
JG: What’s next for Chautauqua County fliers? We understand you have a very attractive price point right now.
SAE: We are doing a fare sale for everybody in the community. One-way tickets are $20.17 and they can be purchased the same day as the flight – zero advance purchase required. Just purchase a ticket by the end of November. It is good for any flight between now and the end of January. That’s perfect for holiday travel.
JG: Thank you Mr. Sisson for your time and your candor. Do you have a last comment?
SAE: We have fixed the problem. We are not simply planning to run a good operation. The Chautauqua County Airport is a key to the county’s prosperity and we are ready and proud to become a vital part of that.
Log on to https://iflysouthern.com/, call 1 (800) 329 0485 for schedules, routes, prices and FAQs, and to see opportunities for a career with Southern Airways Express.