There has been some recent confusion about the status quo at the Jack Brooks Regional Airport.
“It’s an airport!”
“It’s a bus station!”
By February 2013, the likelihood is that Jack Brooks will be both an airport and a bus station.
Thanks to ongoing fundraising efforts by business and government officials in Beaumont and surrounding areas, regularly scheduled commercial air service by American Airlines via a new American Eagle route between Jack Brooks Regional Airport and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), the busiest international air hub in Texas, appears likely. Those flights would be on 50-passenger commuter jets.
Meanwhile, United Airlines plans to continue operating bus service to transport its passengers to Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The buses run several times a day but require advance purchase of tickets for the flight passengers will board at the Houston airport.
An ad hoc nonprofit group Southeast Texas Coalition for Air Service was formed to raise money to provide a “minimum revenue guarantee” (MRG) to American Airlines. Jim Rich, president of the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, heads the coalition and has taken a lead role in the initiative.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said if American Airlines is guaranteed $1.5 to $2 million over the next two years, consumers could expect three to four flights a day between Beaumont and DFW.
Branick said that as owner of the airport, Jefferson County needs to do its part to see that the project moves forward in order to bring new revenue locally. On Sept. 10, the Jefferson County Commissioners Court approved a $250,000 contribution from the county toward that MRG. The next day, Beaumont stepped up at the City Council meeting and matched the $250,000 donation. The Port Arthur City Council chimed in with a $70,000 commitment.
In Orange, the city looked to its Economic Development Corporation for money to commit to the MRG from proceeds from a restricted sales tax used to retain and track businesses and in transportation programs.
Orange City Manager Shawn Oubre said, “The first reason we are contributing is to recruit those businesses. The second reason is to support local industries with global interests like those on Chemical Road. The third reason is to support local tourism to help organizations like the Stark Foundation with the theater and the Stark Museum and Shangri La. And the fourth reason is to help those 1,600 or so local residents from the region who have to travel to Houston to fly to DFW.”
The Orange contribution to the MRG is $20,000. The importance of commercial air service to the region can be seen in the contributions from the public entities, many of which are currently experiencing budget restraints. City of Port Neches government approved $30,000; The Lower Neches Valley Authority and the Sabine-Neches Navigation District each pledged $100,000, with the Nederland EDC adding $75,000.
Private contributors include Community Bank, $20,000; Capital One Bank, $15,000; M&M Air Service, Mason Construction and Entergy Texas, $10,000 each; Dornbos Ltd, $7,500; and American Valve & Hydrant, $6,000. $5,000 pledgers include Market Basket, the Beaumont Board of Realtors, and the Germer Gertz law firm. $2,500 contributors Arceneaux and Gates and Baptist Hospitals were joined by host of local citizens who pledged individual contributions: Rep. Allan Ritter, $5,000; Jeff Branick, $1,500; former County Judge Carl Griffith, $1,000; realtor Sherri Arnold, $1,000; and interim Jack Brooks Airport director Alex Rupp, $500. There have been many more contributors who have pledged money for the MRG including at least $75,000 from sources who did not wish to be identified. At press time, a source told the Business Journal that two additional unidentified private donors came onboard, putting the MRG fund at over $1.3 million, close to the $1.5 million goal.
According to American Airlines, the MRG would only be used if not enough flights were booked over a period of two years for the company to break even. Some have expressed concern that American’s chapter 11 bankruptcy would affect its dedication to Beaumont’s Jack Brooks Airport, but company officials were quick to dismiss such concerns. They said MRGs are typical of smaller markets like Beaumont and that the city’s growth since American left in 2002 after 17 years of air service more than makes up for the risk. Other cities where MRGs were used successfully include Roswell, N.M, and Lake Charles, La.
No MRGs have been implemented successfully in Texas by American Airlines.
“Our successes far outweigh our failures,” said American’s Brett Hooyerink last month, adding that the average ticket price of about $280 to DFW might surprise Beaumont’s air travelers.
“We know that the market won’t necessarily bear a high premium because there is a four-lane road with a 75 mph speed limit to the airport just down the road,” he said.
Another concern as the fundraising efforts for the MRG continued in late September was labor unrest as American Airlines continued to rack up high numbers of flight delays and cancellations, blaming a dispute with its pilots union.
The Allied Pilots Association, the union representing American’s 10,000 pilots, again denied that it sanctioned or encouraged a work slowdown or pilot sickout. But American cut 300 flights, or more than 1 percent of its schedule, between Tuesday, Sept. 18, and Sunday, Sept. 23, to minimize cancellations and reduce delays.
That labor dispute should not be much of a factor by the time American Eagle flights are set to begin here next year. Efforts to secure the MRG suggest that as American Airlines returns to fiscal solvency, the provision of service to the Jack Brooks Regional Airport will be secured by that guarantee.
James Shannon can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 249, or by e-mail at james [at] beaumontbusinessjournal [dot] com.