After decades of one company providing air transportation to smaller Montana towns, the state once again has a new company set to provide Essential Air Service, the fourth in five years.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Wednesday it selected Cape Air, based in Massachusetts, to take over the service from Silver Airways.
Trish Lorino, marketing director for Cape Air, said this morning that many of the details — including exactly when it will take the service over from Silver Airways — still are being worked out, but the transition should be seamless.
She said the exact number of nine-seat Cessna 404 airplanes the airline will have in Montana and the exact number of employees, along with the exact schedule of flights is yet be determined, but ticket prices have been set — $49 each way from each site, taxes and fees included.
Once details have been decided, the schedules will be announced, she said.
The airline will provide two round-trip flights a day between Billings and most of the smaller towns in the contract, Havre, Glasgow, Glendive and Wolf Point.
For the trips to and from Sidney — in the middle of the Bakken oil boom — Cape Air will provide five round-trip flights a day.
Sidney saw a 58 percent increase in use from 2011 to 2012, and a 113 percent increase from 2012 to 2013.
Lorino said the service also will make seamless transitions from Cape Air to larger airways if a passenger is flying to a destination farther than Billings.
“The nice thing about Cape Air is, we have great partnerships with most of the major airlines … so if you are connecting in Billings, it’s typically a very seamless connection,” she said. “Your bags go right through, you fly on one ticket.”
Cape Air started in 1989, providing a flight between Boston and Provincetown, Mass. Since then it has grown to making up to 850 flights a day and carried more than 700,000 passengers last year.
Now, along with flights in Massachusetts, the company provides air service in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Florida, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois, Puerto Rico; the Virgin Islands; West Indies; and Guam, Rota and Saipan in Micronesia.
Lorino said the exact number of workers Cape Air will employ in Montana is not yet set, but it will probably be similar to its operations in the midwest. She said she expects Cape Air will hire about 50 full-time employees and that some part-time job opportunities also likely will be available. Some jobs will be available in each of the towns the company will serve.
The selection comes after a tumultuous five years for EAS in Montana. After Congress established the subsidy to help provide air service to smaller markets following the deregulation of airlines, Big Sky Airlines provided the service from 1984 through 2008.
Havre was without the service for nearly a year after Big Sky went out of business in 2008. DOT awarded the contract to Great Lakes, which had lost its bid on the contract in 2007 to Big Sky. But Great Lakes was not able to smoothly take over the service due to a shortage of airplanes. Havre was without passenger air service from March 2008 until Great Lakes flights started in February 2009.
Then, in 2011, following a unanimous recommendation of the EAS task force in Montana, DOT awarded the contract to Gulf Stream Airways, which later rebranded itself as Silver Airways.
This year, citing low passengers leading to higher-than-allowed subsidies for passengers in Lewistown and Miles City, DOT cancelled the service to those Montana towns.
In June, Silver Airways then filed a notice of its intention to end its service to the remaining Montana EAS communities in 90 days. Because it could not complete the selection of a new carrier in that time, DOT ordered Silver to continue service through Oct. 26, or when a new carrier could take over the service, whichever came first.
The Montana EAS task force unanimously endorsed Cape Air to take over the service, over the proposal by Boutique Air Inc ., which had two proposals to provide service connecting the five remaining EAS towns in Montana with Billings, and Great Lakes, which proposed service from Denver to Glendive and Sidney only.
With the DOT order, Lorini said Cape Air is now working to finalize all of the details to come to Big Sky Country.
Lorini said Cape Air has worked with Silver Airways previously, and also has taken over service in other regions before.
“There will (be a smooth transition),” she said.
Online: Cape Air: https://www.capeair.com
U.S. Department of Transportation order on Montana EAS: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=DOT-OST-1997-2605-0222