A new airline is coming to Johnstown.
Boutique Air has been granted a contract to operate federally subsidized flights from John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
“We consider it to be very good news,” airport authority Chairman James Loncella said. “It was our recommendation. It’s a good step forward for the airport.”
The Department of Transportation has agreed to pay Boutique up to $3,163,097 to operate 30 round-trip flights from Johnstown each week.
Under the contract, 18 of the flights will go to Pittsburgh International Airport and 12 will go to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
The two-year contract begins Nov. 1.
“It’s very exciting and gratifying news for the airport and, hopefully, the community,” airport manager Thomas Keyes said.
Boutique will replace Southern Airways Express, which has operated the local commuter air service for 21 months. The airport authority recommended Boutique over Southern, in part, due to Southern’s reliability issues.
Southern got off to an abysmal start when it launched its commuter air service here in November 2016. Pilot and aircraft shortages combined with Johnstown’s weather, leading to numerous flight cancellations.
In January 2017, for instance, less than half the scheduled flights actually got off the ground.
Although service gradually improved, airport authority members expressed frustration with nagging staff shortages and delayed agreements with other airlines.
Southern’s “code share” agreement with American Airlines became effective in June.
Airport leaders said unreliable service was leading people to avoid the Johnstown airport, shrinking passenger counts. The Transportation Department in May listed Johnstown as an airport at risk of losing its Essential Air Service subsidies because of low ridership.
In June, the authority recommended the Transportation Department award Boutique the subsidized contract under the federal Essential Air Service program for small airports. Southern had also applied for a renewal.
Although Loncella and other board members agreed that Southern’s service had improved, they noted the year-to-date completion factor on June 1 was a meager 86 percent.
That meant more than one flight in 10 did not operate.
“One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results,” Loncella said at the time.
Boutique Air CEO Shawn Simpson said the San Francisco-based airline will be ready to take off here in November.
“We are very excited to get operations going in Johnstown,” Simpson said. “I think we are going to make improvements in getting the numbers up.”
In addition to improved reliability, Simpson said Johnstown passengers will notice an upgrade in the flying experience and better connections.
“Some of the bigger items they are going to notice are the plane is a little more comfortable and a little quieter,” he said.
“Our interline agreement with United (Airlines) is a real positive. They will be able to book flights on the United website or any of the travel websites if they are connecting with United.”
Even those connecting with other airlines will appreciate Boutique’s online booking options, he added.
Southern’s chief commercial officer criticized the authority’s decision to support Boutique.
“The decision to replace Southern Airway’s successful and rapidly growing service at Johnstown with one that will offer fewer flights per week, fewer seats per flight, less baggage capacity and a higher cost to both local flyers and taxpayers seems dubious, at best,” Cestari said.
“However, we thank our many loyal Johnstown customer and community partners and look forward to welcoming them on board our Southern Airways flights at nearby Altoona and DuBois Airports.”
Southern currently operates service in those airports, and both airport authorities recommended Southern’s EAS contract be renewed.
All Southern Airways employees will be offered employment elsewhere in the system, Cestari said. The airline recently started operations at the Wilkes Barre-Scranton International Airport and plans three more new locations within a year.