The major airlines of the United States are grappling with consolidation and fleet standardization. At the same time, some regional airlines are dealing with expansion and traffic development.
Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air has found the right combination. According to the Montana Department of Transportation, Cape Air effectively doubled traffic on Montana’s Essential Air Service routes during its first six months of service.
Cape Air serves 44 cities in New England, New York, Guam, Puerto Rico, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and Montana, including Billings. Twenty of the 44 destinations are serviced as part of the Essential Air Service program underwritten by the federal government.
Cape Air began operation in 1988. It started with service to Provincetown, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, all part of the Massachusetts Cape and Island Region.
Essential Air Service
The airline industry has been regulated since its beginnings in the 1920s. The federal government has told the airlines where to fly, when to fly and how much to charge. In October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Airline Deregulation Act. This freed up the airlines to fly when and where they wanted to fly and to charge what they wanted.
A rider to this bill was the Essential Air Service provision. This provided subsidies to airlines that would contract to fly certain routes to small cities that otherwise would not have air service. In Montana this included Havre, Wolf Point, Sidney, Glendive, Malta, Lewistown and Miles City. In recent years, Miles City and Lewistown were dropped from the program.
Montana is the fourth largest state in area in the United States. You can fit Massachusetts into Montana 13 times, but Montana’s population hovers at 1 million while Massachusetts has more than 6.5 million people.
Most of Montana’s major roads have an east-west orientation. People in Havre, Wolf Point, Sidney, Glendive and Malta need quicker access to Billings, which has a population of 110,000 and is growing. The Magic City area is home to three refineries, many oil industry supply companies and two first-class hospitals.
Regular travelers on this route include doctors, medical staff, patients seeking advanced treatment, Department of Interior personnel, oil company employees and passengers connecting to flights continuing out of state on Allegiant Airlines, Horizon, Delta and United.
Before deregulation, Eastern Montana was served by three airlines. Northwest flew across the top of the nation with many stops in North Dakota and Eastern Montana. Northwest connected people to Minneapolis and Seattle. Western Airlines connected Montana with Salt Lake City. And the original Frontier connected Montana with Denver.
Billings is now served by Allegiant, with flights to Mesa, Ariz.; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas. United connects Billings with Denver. Delta has Skywest flights nonstop to Salt Lake City, and Delta still has a flight each day to Minneapolis. Horizon flies daily to Seattle and Portland, connecting with Alaska Airlines.
EAS in Billings
Since 2006, Billings has had four EAS carriers:
Big Sky Airlines was Billings based and used 19-passenger Beech 1900D aircraft on its flights. Big Sky combined EAS with other intra-Montana service to other cities in the state. Big Sky was well known and had served Billings for years. It was a shock when it folded in 2008.
Next came Great Lakes Airlines. Based in Wyoming with a strong presence in Nebraska, Wyoming and Dakota, the airline seemed a natural fit. It also used 19-passenger Beech 1900s but decided to connect the Montana EAS points with service to Denver rather than Billings. It didn’t work.
Silver Airways (which started out as Gulfstream International) was next. Again the Beech 1900 was used with little success.
Cape Air began EAS service in December 2013.
Cape Air Senior Vice President of Planning Andrew Bonney grew up within sight of the airport at Beverly, Mass. Since pre-kindergarten, he had wanted to work in aviation. Airline planning is his passion.
According to Bonney, these are the keys to Cape Air’s success:
♦ The first is people. The airline’s mantra is: Make our customers happy and have a good time doing it.
♦ Bonney explained that a 19-passenger plan is not economical on many EAS routes; however, the Cessna 402 is ideal. It carries nine passengers, which allows for greater frequency and thus more passengers overall.
♦ Frequency: Some cities need more flights than others. Sidney has more flights than other cities because it is located on the edge of the Bakken oil boom.
♦ Fares: Keep them low and simple. Cape Air’s standard fare on its Montana routes is just $52. This price includes all taxes and fees.
♦ Schedules: Keep them simple. Use the same schedule seven days a week.
♦ Experience: “A major part of Cape Air’s experience comes from the open and competitive airline market … so when operating in an EAS environment, Cape Air brings those competitive disciplines to EAS,” Bonney said.
♦ Expansion: “Cape Air is always looking for areas to expand,” he said. “But right now we are consolidating and fine-tuning our growth.”
My flight: Billings to Havre
I picked a very hot July Saturday in 2014 to take my first Cape Air flight. I picked Billings to Havre because it is the longest segment flown by Cape Air in Montana.
Capt. Jared Lanieuski was our host. We left the gate five minutes before our departure time. Because of the heat, I expected a bumpy ride. Fortunately, six passengers fit comfortably into the nine-passenger Cessna.
I guess I never truly understood just how vast Montana was until I took this northbound flight. Miles and miles of uninhabited “brown.” A young boy joined Capt. Lanieuski up front in the co-pilot seat as he navigated through the 100-degree heat. He kept the flight at a comfortable “light chop.”
We were first in line for landing at Havre. We arrived at the gate 12 minutes early. I relaxed and did some writing in the cozy terminal. The time passed quickly and soon five of us were in line for security screening.
The agent passed out bottled water for the return flight—a classy touch on a hot day. With the wind at our backs, we scooted comfortably back to Billings, arriving 20 minutes early.
Cape Air truly has found the right mix in Montana.
This article originally appeared in the July 13 Billings Outpost, which is published every Thursday and is available for free all over Billings and in nearby communities.