Life after Allegiant leaves airport in January

VIENNA — Several nights a week, the restaurant inside the terminal at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport is packed with customers waiting for flights.

Business is good now, said Linda Stabile, who 11 years ago opened Mikee’s Restaurant at the local airport in Vienna.

But that could change in January when Allegiant Air, the only airline offering commercial service at the airport, makes its final departure.

“We’re not really sure what will happen, what we’ll do when that time comes, stay open or close,” Stabile said. “Right now it’s wait and see. The airport is talking to other airlines, trying to bring in new service. It would be nice to see that develop before Allegiant leaves. It’s hard not knowing.”

Although she continues to offer catering services and has a steady stream of area residents who frequent her eatery, Stabile’s food business relies heavily on Allegiant travelers stopping in for a meal, quick cup of coffee or sandwich.

Allegiant’s decision came as a “blow to everybody,” Stablie said.

But concerns were heightened among those whose jobs are impacted by workings at the airport even sooner when the Las Vegas-based airline grounded its Punta Gorda flights from the Valley earlier this year.

“That was a hard word,” said Dan Dickten, local aviation director. “Losing those flights hurt, but we had hoped, been under the impression, we would get those flights back. But we got this instead.”

Allegiant’s departure

Allegiant has been offering nonstop, discount leisure flights on a regular basis from the Vienna airport for more than a decade. In August, the company, citing low demand, announced its service here will end Jan. 4. That word came a year to the day after Aerodynamics Inc. stopped its Great Lakes JetExpress flights from Youngstown to Chicago — a matter that is playing out in federal court as the port authority sued the airline, which then countersued.

The port authority, which has accused the airline, commonly known as ADI, of fraud and breach of contract, is looking to recoup $361,714 the board said it paid the company to provide daily passenger flights. The service launched July 1, 2016, but was abruptly grounded weeks later. Earlier this year, the port authority sued the airline, accusing it of fraud and breach of contract. ADI filed a countersuit demanding $294,221 the Georgia-based airline says it billed the port authority for service, but was never paid.

The port authority opened discussions with other airlines to try to replace ADI. Those efforts, explained John Moliterno, the port’s executive director, have been intensified since Allegiant’s announcement. Even so, he acknowledged, it’s a slow process.

“We want to put something in motion as quickly as possible,” Moliterno said. “But we also know it’s important to proceed with caution, follow due diligence and do what’s best for the airport and the community as a whole.

Courting

new carriers

The past several months local airport officials have been in talks with Southern Airways Express, a Memphis-based airline that has shown interest in launching commercial service in the Valley. In September, Mark Cestari, Southern’s executive vice president for business development, said the airline sees the Youngstown-Warren market as a good fit and flights could start early next year.

The port authority is looking to set up a town-hall-type meeting next month to gauge potential community support for the carrier.

A large part of the market would be geared toward business travelers. Southern would fly a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan from the local airport. The company is also looking at the possibility of basing aircraft at Vienna.

Potential destinations could include Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Cestari said service would be based on demand and passenger willingness to pay fares.

The airline, founded in 2013, proposed putting together a 90-day launch plan to see how the service takes off.

Earlier this month, Dickten, Moliterno and Mike Mooney, aviation consultant for the local airport, met with several airlines while attending the Volaire Aviation Air Service Development Forum in Pasco, Washington. Mooney, of Denver, is a partner with Volaire Aviation Consulting.

SkyWest Airlines, which has code-share agreements with all three network carriers, is also up for consideration, Dickten said. He noted the local airport is particularly interested in SkyWest’s United Express connection service. Destinations could include Chicago, New York and Washington.

Other airlines include United Airlines, which has code-share with SkyWest; Sun Country Airlines, which could be a comparable replacement for Allegiant that also provides service to leisure destinations; and Ultimate Jet Express, an on-demand charter service.

Traffic jams

A challenge has been courting new airlines concerned about the heavy air traffic in northeast Ohio, said Moliterno.

“There’s competition in the region, at Cleveland (Hopkins International Airport), Akron-Canton Airport and even Pittsburgh (International Airport) that some airlines just don’t want to get into,” he said. “But then you have ones like Southern who want to break into northeast Ohio.”

Mooney told the port authority last month competition with other airports in the region knocked the local airfield out of Allegiant’s market plan.

Between 2006, when Allegiant launched its local service, and 2013, the airline was the only one offering low-cost flights to Florida in the “northeast Ohio/western Pennsylvania triangle,” Mooney said.

However, in 2014, Allegiant started seeing competition from Frontier Airlines when that low-cost airline began offering flights from Cleveland to several destinations in Florida.

In 2015, Allegiant started offering flights at Akron-Canton and Pittsburgh. By the end of 2016, Spirit started offering flights from Akron-Canton to similar destinations and since has stepped up its service with flights from from Pittsburgh to Florida.

Mooney advised local officials to proceed with caution. He also recommended switching the airport’s emphasis from the low-cost, leisure flights Allegiant offered to business-oriented air service.

Dickten and Moliterno each said they hope to attract multiple carriers to accommodate both business and leisure travelers.

“Can we do this before Allegiant leaves? Honestly, there’s a possibility we could see a gap in service,” Moliterno said. “But how long of a gap, that’s still up in the air. We would like it to be as short a period of time as possible and that’s what we’re working towards.”

Likewise, Dickten said the goal is for there not to be “a long break before other air service is operating again.”

Business breakdowns

Dickten said one of the biggest hits to the airport will be the loss of parking revenue. Also, Winner Aviation provides aeronautical support services such as fueling, hangaring and aircraft maintenance, among other services. It also has a private charter department.

Rick Hale, Winner’s chairman/CEO, said not having Allegiant will impact several areas of the airport’s operations.

“As far as we’re concerned, we cover a lot of services for the airport,” he said. “But beyond that, when you look at the airport, the community as a whole, overall what having a commercial airline can do for a community is what really counts. It’s an asset for all of us.”

Dickten said there is also concern among on-site car rental companies .

Meanwhile, Mikeee’s has had good days and bad days since Punta Gorda flights stopped. September was rough because Allegiant put its Orlando destination on hiatus, netting an additional loss in passengers. The Orlando flights have since resumed.

“We’ve gotten through the changes,” Stabile said. “We’ve come this far. We were busy with both the airlines running. I just hope we can get some of that activity back, not just for Mikee’s, but for the entire community. Not having the flights is a loss to everyone. Having them is a community asset.”

vshank@tribtoday.com

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