By Tim Leeds
Big Sky Airlines vice president Craig Denny said his company wants to rebuild Havre's trust in his company with better service and communication.
Denny said he has heard several complaints and "horror stories" about people trying to fly out of Havre on the airline, but he wants Havre to know "the buck stops here."
He said he wants the airline's customers to let him know what needs to be done to make the airline better for Havre.
"What can we do from this point onward to try to restore faith in the community?" he said.
Denny answered questions at a meeting at noon Thursday in Wolfer's Diner sponsored by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce. Havre and Lewistown residents concerned with the airline's performance met with the company president Kim Champney in Billings Wednesday.
Denney said that while Big Sky Airlines receives about $5 million in federal Essential Airline Service subsidies to provide flights between hub cities and smaller communities, it only receives the money for flights it completes.
"The incentive for us is to operate every flight we can and we try to do so," he said.
Havre resident Anthony Kaluza said he has had horrible experiences with the airline, including canceled flights and a flight in which the interior of the plane seemed to be 120 degrees. He asked why the company continues to expand when it doesn't provide dependable service between Havre and Billings now.
Denney said the flight completion ratio in Havre is actually better than the national average. He said the airline has completed 96 percent of its flights in the last six months.
He said that when the company was only serving seven Montana airports with three planes, the completion ratio was probably higher but the company couldn't have survived.
Denney said in an interview after the meeting that continuing to expand the airline should bring better service to all of its stops. He said growth will improve the company's financial situation and performance, and will improve its services everywhere, including in Havre.
Havre resident Delores Phillipp told Denney she she doesn't trust the airline to provide dependable service. She said she is going to Dodge City, Kans., and booked a flight to Billings two days earlier than her flight to Dodge City departs, just to make sure she doesn't miss her connection if the Havre flight is canceled. She asked Denney what can be done to make sure she wouldn't miss a connection.
Denney said if a flight is canceled, the Big Sky office in Havre can rewrite the ticket so it can be used on another airline out of Great Falls.
Denney offered to work with Phillipp after the meeting to make sure arrangements were made to her satisfaction for her flight later this month.
Denney said that if a ticket is voluntarily canceled by a passenger, they can get a partial refund, minus an administrative fee. If a flight is canceled by something out of the passenger's control, the person should be able to receive a full refund.
Denny acknowledged several problems with service in Havre, including a high turnover rate in their personnel at the Havre airport and poor communication about canceled flights.
Denney said a new Havre manager, Don Seagraves, is completing a 90-day probationary period. He said the airline hopes to build a staff in Havre for the long term and eliminate the problems that come with high turnover.
Seagraves said he wants to make sure passengers are notified in advance if a flight is going to be delayed or canceled.
Seagraves said he will make every effort to keep communications open and to be available at the airport at all scheduled hours.
Denney said problems occur when a flight is rescheduled to leave Billings for Havre in the morning instead of in the evening. Passengers drive up to the Havre airport at night and see that the plane isn't there, but don't realize it will arrive in the morning and they can still make their flight.
One option raised at the meeting was to have a message line available so passengers can call in the evening and find out if their flight will be there. Denney said that is definitely on his to-do list, and Seagraves said he can easily implement that procedure.
Denney said Big Sky actually has a good record for completing its Havre flights in the last 30 months and that the company needs to correct the perception that it doesn't complete them.
"When we have had to cancel a flight, it impacts somebody and that impact's not easily forgotten, and that's what we're trying to fix," he said.