Predictions of gloom and doom are nothing new for area residents frustrated with operations at what used to be known as Southeast Texas Regional Airport before Jefferson County Commissioners renamed it to honor local legend Congressman Jack Brooks. But Jennifer Hogancamp, the energetic young airport director the county hired last year, is more of a “glass half full” kind of administrator who sees cause for genuine – if cautious – optimism for the future of the only commercial aviation facility serving passengers between Houston and Lake Charles, La.
Her hiring in August 2011 was the result of an extensive search process aimed at filling the slot vacated by the retirement of Hal Ross with an aviation management professional. Hogancamp’s resume included a stint as airport manager at Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio and 10 years as assistant director at Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport. She is a certified member of the American Association of Airport Executives.
Hogancamp is facing a complex situation she inherited with Continental Airlines being merged into United Airlines. Continental had operated the five commercial flights a day at Jack Brooks, all connecting to Houston International Airport (IAH). Those flights were operated on contract with Colgan Air, a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines, which declared bankruptcy and announced it would cease flying to Beaumont by the end of 2012.
Although details have yet to be announced, Hogancamp said a deal is imminent for a new United contractor to begin daily flights from Jack Brooks to IAH in July 2012 via regional passenger jets instead of the unreliable Saab340 turboprop planes Colgan flew over the past year.
In an interview with the Business Journal, Hogancamp displayed not only passion for her job as airport director but a keen understanding of the aviation landscape in Beaumont and nationwide.
What is the prognosis for the Jack Brooks Regional Airport?
If this airport is going to be successful, the community has got to be involved and has got to be supportive – that’s the only way. I can’t make this airport successful by myself. I can guide it in the right direction but if people don’t use the airport, then it’s a lost cause.
The county commissioned a study by the Sixel Consulting Group that showed a lot of air passengers from this area don’t use our airport.
If you look at the number of people who are flying out of our area – the thing is we need to capture those people and get them to fly out of here again. There’s opportunity there. If there weren’t people here that were flying, then that would be different. We have industry here, we have people that fly but they’re just not using our airport; they’re driving to Houston – 1,600 people per day each way. Of those, we’re only capturing 2.5 percent. If we could get just a third of those people back, we’d be doing great.
How will the Pinnacle bankruptcy impact our airport?
Pinnacle filed Chapter 11; Colgan operated under Pinnacle. They are not going to fly the Saab routes anymore, and the Saabs are the aircraft we have here.
They’re old, old airplanes and the maintenance on them is just unbelievable. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about reliability and the lack thereof, and you can pretty much attribute it to the airplane.
So it was more of a Colgan issue behind the current state of affairs here?
We needed to market (the airport); we need to work on getting passengers back, but how do you do it when you don’t have the service to support it?
In my mind, this is the door of opportunity opening because (Pinnacle-Colgan) is going to go away. United is going to bring a different carrier in; it looks like it’s going to be regional jets starting next month. We will be able to have reliability; we’ll get away from the stigma of having prop airplanes because we used to have regional jets here and they went away. So I feel like yes, it’s a dismal situation, but I think the dismal situation is opening the door of opportunity for us.
What role do high fares play in this equation?
We’re in a precarious situation because aside from the fact we had such unreliable service, the fares being high is pretty much from a lack of competition. In the general view, it may be bad but it’s probably helped us keep air service here because the airlines like high fares. Even though it may be a negative thing in our minds, it may be what’s kept us from losing service altogether.
Until we have more competition – any small airport that doesn’t have any competition is always going to have high fares. That’s a given. I shouldn’t say high – higher than what you would get at a hub.
How can these barriers to expanded use of our airport be overcome?
I think we definitely have some improvements to make there. I think once we re-establish ourselves with a new carrier, if we get people using our airport again – we’re having load factors in the 20 and 30 percent range. We can’t have that and expect a carrier to stay in our city, so we’ve got to support them.
We were in a Catch-22 before – how do you support a carrier that’s not reliable? That’s why I say this is the opportunity that we have in front of us. If we get someone else in here, begin to market it, begin to recapture those passengers and the airline does good, then we can start arguing the point of fares and attract an additional carrier.
But there is Houston 88 miles away.
The proximity to Houston is of course an issue … but I think a bigger issue (is) ... the lack of the reliability of the service here – or the price – but usually the reliability, the cancellations, the delays, that kind of thing.
What do you tell people who ask what you’re going to do to solve these problems?
I tell them yes, I’m the airport director and yes, I have something to do with this, but at the end of the day it’s not my bottom in the seat flying. An airline is not going to stick around if people aren’t using their service – and enough people to make them profitable. They have operating costs and they don’t want to just break even; they want to make some money.