By Lee Denney and Matt Weafer
Messenger-Inquirer Special Publications
Greater Owensboro Business Magazine
With little fanfare, a 19-seat Beechcraft turboprop airplane touched down on the east-west runway at Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport. It was around 8:30 on a mostly cloudy Sunday in mid-November. There were only three passengers on board when the plane landed, but it marked the return of regularly scheduled commercial air service to OWB for the first time since early March.
Its arrival couldn’t have come too soon for a number of local business leaders, but their excitement was short-lived. Just one day after Big Sky Airlines announced it would expand from one daily Owensboro flight to two beginning Dec. 20, the company abruptly announced it would fly its last flight out of Owensboro on Jan. 7. The move is part of a plan to cease all flights east of Montana, according to a Big Sky press release.
Big Sky’s departure will again leave the Owensboro airport without commercial air service. But service is hopefully only months away. Tim Bradshaw, Owensboro airport manager, said the U. S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency request for proposals to find another airline to serve Owensboro. It will most likely be one of three, Bradshaw said: Colgan Air of Pinnacle Airlines, Air Midwest or Great Lakes Airlines.
Great Lakes Airlines was the community’s second choice during the first bidding that took place when the airport’s service came up for renewal, Bradshaw said.
In an e-mail to the Messenger-Inquirer on Dec. 20, Bill Adams, spokesman for the federal Department of Transportation, said the agency will "use our statutory authority" to require Big Sky to continue service until a replacement service begins.
If Big Sky is unable to continue service because of planes being repossessed or pilots leaving the company, Adams wrote, "the department will do everything in our power to speed up the process of getting replacement service."
Bradshaw also confirmed that the airport board was talking with a Las Vegas-based airline about launching Owensboro service in the spring. If the discussions result in an agreement, Allegiant Air would create twice weekly non-stop flights to Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla. He said one-way tickets on 130 seat jets would cost $89 each.
"I had rather spend the time I would use driving to and from other airports at home with my family," said Joe Lowe, part of the ten-member airport board and a frequent flier. In addition to his daily morning radio show on WOMI-AM, Lowe is a live events announcer for monster truck shows and freestyle motorcycle races around the United States, Canada and Europe.
Lowe’s concern goes to the employees recently hired at the airport. "(Big Sky) sort of pulled the rug out from under us," he said. "My immediate concern is for those people. I really feel for them."
For Tony Gholson, factory manager for Swedish Match North America, flying out of the local airport benefits the local economy. "In 2006, we had 268 flights in and out of Evansville. That was probably about $150,000 worth of airline tickets that, if the connections were right, should come to Owensboro."
Swedish Match owns a quarter share of a "net jet," a kind of time share plan for corporate jets. Gholson said commercial versus charter is a lower cost alternative.
RegionsAir had served the local airport since 2001, flying between Owensboro and the American Airlines hub in St. Louis. But after repeated flight delays and cancellations the marriage turned sour. The FAA grounded the Smyrna, Tenn., airline on March 8 because of pilot training issues. That’s when the Airport’s board decided it was time for a business divorce.
Ankur Gopal is the CEO of Revasyst, a small but rapidly growing Owensboro-based medical billing agency that has business clients in the U.S. and abroad. Gopal who spends 30 to 35 percent of his time traveling was excited about the return of daily flights into Owensboro.
"When reliable service comes (to Owensboro) with more options," Gopal said, "we’re going to see more of an impact. Business people here are pretty well resigned to just know when they need a flight, they have to go to Louisville, Evansville or Nashville. Until something dramatic happens in the Owensboro airport, people are going to stay resigned with the status quo." When Owensboro offers flights to Chicago, Memphis, Nashville or some other city with more options, "I will be there with bells on," he said.
Reprinted with permission, Messenger-Inquirer