The new airline serving smaller Montana communities including Havre has hit a few bumps, including adjusting to the weather, but the transition seems to be working, with passenger numbers up for Cape Air.
The airline, founded in Massachusetts, took over Montana's federally subsidized Essential Air Service passenger flights in December, and brought usage numbers up significantly from the previous year.
Billings Cape Air marketing manager Erin Hatzell said the company is pleased with the transition and the number of passengers.
Cape Air reports say this year, based on the 326 passengers boarding and deboarding in January, Havre would have an annual passenger rate of 3,900 in 2104, compared with 2,147 for 2013. The numbers dropped a bit in February, to 270 passengers, but still significantly more than the monthly average of 179 for 2013, primarily under former EAS provider Silver Airways.
Hatzell said Cape Air has a long tradition in EAS markets and has a reputation for reliability and good service.
"We really just thrive in EAS markets," she said.
The company came in following a messy five years in the Montana EAS system. The federal program was established after airlines were deregulated in the 1970s to maintain passenger air service in smaller markets.
Cape Air became the fourth airline to provide Montana EAS service in five years when it took over in December.
Big Sky Airlines, which provided EAS in Montana starting in 1984, went out of business in 2008. The EAS service at that time provided flights to Billings, Havre, Glasgow, Glendive, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point
But the transition was delayed, leaving Havre without the service for nearly a year. The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the contract to Great Lakes Airlines, which Big Sky had beaten out in the contract bid in 2007. 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.
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 passenger rates leading to high per-passenger subsidies in Lewistown and Miles City - the cutoff point is $1,000 per passenger - the U.S. Department of Transportation canceled EAS in those cities. Later, Silver Airways said it would not try to renew its contract.
Hatzell said the subsidy for Cape Air is well below the cutoff, and will drop even lower as passenger rates increase.
For Havre, the rate for February was $543 per passenger, while in Sidney, in the midst of the Bakken oil boom and with five flights a day instead of Havre's two, was $178 per passenger.
Hatzell said Cape Air, which started with one plane providing flights between Provincetown and Boston in Massachusetts in 1989, has pretty well filled its staff in Montana with about 50 employees hired. It is bringing in its ninth plane in the next month or so, which could help increase reliability, she added.
"It will be able to help pick up any slack if there is any mechanical issue, so we won't have to cancel or delay flights," she said.
Despite some weather issues, the airline has had an excellent completion rate, she said. For Havre, the completion rate outside of uncontrollable issues like weather was 94.5 percent, it was 93 percent in February and a nearly perfect 99 percent in March.
Those numbers were reached despite the transition to Cape Air as a new carrier and some weather issues, including Billings receiving a record 100 inches of snow by March.
"This is the farthest west that Cape Air has ever been, with a new region, new challenges new weather," Hatzell said. "I think that we have done a pretty gosh-darn good job."