United Airlines looking at options for Jefferson County

The future of commercial air service at the Jack Brooks Regional Airport is up in the air, as Colgan Air is “winding down its operations with United Airlines” in the face of bankruptcy by its parent company Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and will no longer fly planes to service Southeast Texas.

Although talk of a restructuring by Pinnacle had been going on for several months, it was not until this past week that anyone knew its eventual effect on commercial service to Southeast Texas. By June, Colgan will have pared down its flights to three a day from its current five. By the end of the year, if not sooner, it will not operate here.

That leaves a big question about the future of the county-owned Jack Brooks Regional Airport and despite assurances from airport director Jennifer Hogancamp, there are no promises for the long term.

“In anticipation of this announcement, the airport has been in contact with United Airlines regarding replacement service and has been reassured that United has no plans to discontinue service to the cities currently served by Pinnacle and Colgan,” Hogancamp stated in a press release. “The airport will continue efforts to ensure that the airport maintains air service as well as continue to diligently seek new/additional carriers to provide service to new markets.”

But that wasn’t exactly the same message being sent out by officials with United Airlines. The company did state that it is working with Colgan to help resolve passenger issues and contacting those who might be affected by the reduction in flights, but it did not indicate what the airline’s future would be in Jefferson County.

“I don’t have any more detail, other than to say that we are working with Colgan to transition to other carriers,” said Mike Trevino, United Airlines spokesperson. “I can tell you we will contact any customers whose reservations will change because of the transition. I don’t know what the transition will look like for the cities they fly to, and I can’t speculate on what we are going to do in the future at this point. The only details that I have are that we are working to transition the flights.”

Colgan currently operates out of three United hubs and services 54 cities, he said. For Southeast Texas that means about 10,000 passengers a year will have to hope the service is replaced or drive to Houston.

According to Alex Rupp, financial analyst for the Jack Brooks Regional Airport, in the first quarter of 2012, there were 2,650 passengers that had their flights originate in Jefferson County. There were 2,460 passengers who terminated or ended their trip in Jefferson County. For each one of those departing passengers, the county received $4.50 or about $11,900. Colgan currently pays Jefferson County $3,638 a month for office rental and an additional $1.44 per 1,000 pounds of airplane landed weight – dividing the weight of the plane by 1,000 and multiplying it by $1.44 for each landing.

In an interview with The Examiner on Wednesday, Hogancamp said she can’t predict the future but she said she is in direct contact with the decision-makers at United and they don’t indicate service here will end.

“We are working with them to continue service,” she said. “Obviously, Colgan will be ceasing operations by end of the year.”

She said she has also been meeting with other airlines to try and persuade them to look at service to Jefferson County. She said there are some promising leads but did not give any details. She did say that she believes an arrangement similar to what the county did with Delta several years ago, where the county provided an incentive, would go a long way in attracting an airline. She said the service to Dallas was successful but the airline quit using the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport as a hub. She said the county is also looking at a grant to get the funds to attract an airline, but it will also take a local match.

“We hope to get government funding to help offset new service; there is a something called a Small Community Air Service Grant that we are applying for. I think the RFP (request for proposal) is at the end of April,” Hogancamp said. “The best thing is to get local funds to put up. You don’t just apply and have no funds to match it.”

Hogancamp said it is a harsh reality that Jefferson County could lose commercial service because there is no guarantee that continuing commercial travel to Houston is in United’s long-term plan.

“We could lose them,” she said. “Nothing is a done deal until we get it on paper. But they have told us more than once they have no intentions of discontinuing service. I think we have a good case; we definitely have the passengers.”

She also admitted that losing Colgan might be a blessing in disguise for passengers flying in and out of Jefferson County because the airplane conditions and delays have brought about numerous complaints.

In January, a reporter with The Examiner relayed his experience on one of the Colgan flights to County Judge Jeff Branick, who later forwarded it to Hogancamp. Because there were so few passengers on the flight, the passengers were all required to sit behind row nine. However, at least five seats were unusable because the covers had been severely ripped or they had signs on them stating they were out of service.

Additionally, the overhead bin rattled so loudly that a handful of paper had to be wedged between it and the cabin to stop the noise. The plane was also dirty and contained items left from previous flights.

“I have heard the stories where people have had a bad experience,” Hogancamp said. “And I have even experienced a few of my own.”