By Debby Woodin
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Adding two flights a day to Chicago is the goal of Steve Stockam, manager of the Joplin Regional Airport, if American Airlines overcomes a couple of challenges.
Stockam says American Eagle service has high passenger counts, and he believes those would more than double — from 53,000 a year to 115,000 — if flights to Chicago were added.
Stockam is preparing to go through what has become the biannual bidding for the Essential Air Service program. EAS is a federal program that subsidizes airlines to provide service to rural airports that have long had airplane transportation but have lost it because of complications such as economic factors.
The bidding procedure will open in late August or early September, Stockam said.
“They will make a decision by the first of the year, and the (current) contract is up the first of February,” he said. “We anticipate American is going to bid, and we want to support them in that bid.”
Joplin’s load factor has climbed to 81 percent occupancy of the 44 seats available on two flights a day to the Dallas airport.
“Typically, the airlines want to see something over 70 percent. An 80 percent or in excess of 80 percent load factor is obviously something that is very good,” Stockam said. “From that standpoint, American Airlines, in our discussions with them, have been very, very pleased with Joplin.”
There have been periods when the passenger count has been even higher. Tickets were oversold over traditional spring break weeks in March, as well as some weekly Monday and Friday flights as business people have gone on and returned from trips.
That’s why Stockam has proposed an expansion of the service. “We’ve already started the discussion,” he said. “We’ve provided American with the information” on the load factors. “There are two hurdles we have to get through. The EAS bid is No. 1, and No. 2 is their Chapter 11 filing.”
Joplin’s airline is American Eagle, a subsidiary of American Airlines, which is owned by AMR Corp. AMR declared bankruptcy in November, and said it intended to reorganize and emerge from financial protection as a stand-alone company. The process has been complicated by an effort by US Airways to merge with AMR.
Stockam said he believes American’s bankruptcy effort will close by the end of the year, which would make way for Joplin to get into serious talks about service changes.
“They have got to really stabilize some of their fleet reorganization: How many planes will we have available? Who’s going to be flying them?” Stockam said. “According to what we understand by the filings, that should be cleared up by the end of the year. Maybe the first quarter of next year we can add additional service or another hub. Those are not definite. They are just part of our discussion with them at this time.”
Stockam said airport surveys show Chicago service as a preference of local passengers.
“As part of our discussions, we have identified a section of the market we are not serving very well, and that is a lot of East Coast cities,” he said. “We polled local residents and businesses, and they have told us the real issue is time. They have got to fly to Dallas and then to Chicago to get to cities on the East Coast.”
He said it takes about 14 extra hours to make that trip.
“What we’ve shown American is if you could put two flights into Chicago, we can double our number of passengers we’re handling out of our facility,” Stockam said.
American also has studied that and has come to the same conclusion on passenger counts, he said.
Mark Norton, manager of Great Southern Travel, 515 E. Seventh St., said the additional service is needed.
Travelers could reach any city they want around the world if they had access to both the Dallas and Chicago airports, Norton said.
“We really need a third flight a day,” he said. “They’re keeping the flights pretty well full. It’s working well now.
“It’s just that we need another flight, but the best thing would be a Chicago hub. They’ve got a lot of service there, and Chicago would have better schedules” than other possible airports.
Stockam will use the numbers to try to persuade the Department of Transportation to let Joplin keep American Eagle as its EAS provider.
“Our stand — and I’ve already told the DOT this — is we’ve started this process,” he said. “We’ve shown this has worked; it has turned the airport around. The bankruptcy has slowed it up a little bit, but we would like another round with American to let that process play out.”
Stockam said American Eagle could lift Joplin off the taxpayer subsidy.
“It could put us out of the EAS program.” he said. “We want that, and DOT wants that. That’s the whole point is getting airports back on their feet and where they can sustain themselves.”
American Airlines receives a federal subsidy of $2,778,256 a year for Joplin service under the Essential Air Service program, according to the Joplin Regional Airport.