Pleas from a parade Boutique Air employees were not enough to change the outcome of a vote that recommends canceling the Johnstown air carrier’s contract.
For the second time this month, Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority board members voted to recommend SkyWest Airlines replace Boutique Air under a federally subsidized program.
On Aug. 5, authority members voted 5-3 to recommend SkyWest, based in part on its plan to operate 50-passenger twin-jet aircraft under the federal Essential Air Service Program.
Due to scheduling conflicts for some authority members, the vote and discussion were held prior to a public comment period at the earlier meeting. That appears to violate the state Sunshine Act, also known as the Open Meetings Law.
Local activist John DeBartola raised the issue, leading to the second consideration of the EAS contract at Tuesday’s regular meeting.
Despite nearly two hours of public comment and discussion, the only difference in Tuesday’s 6-3 vote was authority Chairman James Loncella’s vote in favor of the SkyWest recommendation. Loncella normally only votes as a tie-breaker but said he wanted his position known after the controversy.
Joining Loncella in supporting SkyWest were Mike Parrish, Rick McQuaide, David Kalina, Jonathan Gleason and Tim McIlwain.
Jack Babich, Melissa Komar and George Arcurio voted against the recommendation. All said they supported the Boutique proposal.
Boutique has served Johnstown with flights to Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International and Pittsburgh International airports since November 2018 under the federal Essential Air Service program. Its contract runs out Nov. 1.
Boutique and SkyWest were among four airlines submitting proposals for the federal contract, which will ultimately be awarded by the Department of Transportation.
SkyWest proposes to serve Johnstown with round trips to Chicago O’Hare International
Airport and Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington.
Several speakers at Tuesday’s meeting questioned the value of flights to Chicago and Washington.
“Pittsburgh is what people in Johnstown think of when they think of flying,” David Norris said during the public comment period.
“Why would you spend taxpayers’ money to get an airline that flies to places people locally don’t want to fly to?”
Pam Renowden recalled the airport authority’s push a few years ago to include flights to Pittsburgh.
“Why would you consider an airline that takes money out of Pennsylvania?” she said, referring to SkyWest’s Chicago and Washington destinations.
Boutique CEO Shawn Simpson said a survey of Johnstown residents showed Pittsburgh as the overwhelming choice, eclipsing Chicago and Washington.
“These are two destinations people aren’t terribly excited to go to,” Simpson said.
But Greg Atkin, SkyWest’s director of market development, said local people are driving to Pittsburgh for flights to other destinations. Even with Boutique’s agreements with American Airlines and United Airlines, there are only about 10 cities Johnstown travelers can reach on a single ticket, he said.
Transferring from Boutique to another airline also may require passengers to retrieve and re-check their luggage.
Operating as United Express, SkyWest will offer a choice of 150 destinations with a single ticket, he said.
Mark Monroe, of Nulton Aviation, and Boutique employees James Barefoot, Zack Long, Kurtis Smithley, Alan Mankamyer, Jason Muller, Ryan Harley and Dan Lose all urged the authority to retain Boutique, pointing to the 15 current jobs that include workers at a new regional maintenance facility with the potential to expand.
“What we have with Boutique is: We have a reality,” Monroe said.
Barefoot said, “I like working for a company that puts the community first.”
“We are the people on the ground out here,” Smithley said. “In one way or another, we are stimulating the local economy here. Local businesses will all benefit.”
Authority member Mike Parrish, chairman of the enplanement committee, thanked the speakers for their input.
“The information you have provided to us is information we have considered throughout this analysis,” Parrish said, listing Boutique’s impact on local businesses, employment at the maintenance facility, increased operating costs for jet service and ticket prices.
“I can tell all of you, without a doubt, that each one of those items has been thoroughly reviewed by the committee. It is not something we considered lightly.”
Members reached out to airlines for additional information and even traveled to other airports to see how airlines operated.
Babich, Komar and Arcurio said Boutique’s expanded employment makes the airline a valuable partner.
“My thought process is always to promote economic development and promote job development,” said Komar, who is executive director of the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority.
At the Aug. 5 meeting, several enplanement committee members said they recommended SkyWest because the airline and its larger aircraft provided the best hope of attracting more passengers. To retain the EAS funding, the subsidy is not supposed to exceed $200 a passenger.
Currently, Boutique is getting around $270 a passenger, but Simpson said no community has been removed from the EAS program just for exceeding the $200 ceiling.
But building ridership should be the goal for any air service, Kalina said.
“We need to vote on the airline we feel will be in the best interest of Johnstown, Cambria County and the community,” Kalina said.
“This was a difficult decision,” McQuaide said. “We took it serious. I can promise you that. We want what is best for the community.”