‘What are you going to do to straighten this out?’ Committee’s dissatisfaction with Southern Airways Express grows

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Members of the Aeronautics Committee met Wednesday afternoon at Quincy Regional Airport. | David Adam

QUINCY — The number of passengers flying out of Quincy Regional Airport isn’t growing, but the frustration with Southern Airways Express is.

Members of the Aeronautics Committee met Wednesday afternoon to discuss issues with the low number of enplanements, canceled flights and extra stops reportedly being added to what are supposed to be non-stop flights between Quincy to Chicago.

Committee members learned Wednesday that 407 people flew out of Quincy in May — 199 to Lambert International Airport in St. Louis and 208 to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Seventy flights were made to St. Louis, and 65 were made to Chicago. By comparison, only 352 passengers flew out of Quincy in March. 

The Quincy airport has a goal of 833 passengers a month which would allow it to reach 10,000 passengers for the year, enabling it to receive a $1 million federal grant. However, the Quincy airport didn’t surpass 600 passengers in a month last year, totaling 4,977 for the year — a monthly average of 414. The passenger count was 4,789 in 2022.

The Aeronautics Committee also learned that eight more flights were canceled in May. Five were for maintenance, two for weather and one because of issues with the crew. The Palm Beach, Fla.-based airline canceled 20 flights in March.

“I don’t think (Southern Airways Express has) kept up their end of the bargain at all,” said Dave Bauer, a 2ndWard alderman and chair of the Aeronautics Committee. “It seemed to me like they came in, and they had all the pilot issues solved. They had new airplanes coming in here, but we’ve still got mechanical problems. I think we need to go to them and say, ‘What are you going to do to straighten this out?’”

“People have had a lot of complaints with the airline,” said Eric Entrup, a 1st Ward alderman and a member of the Aeronautics Committee. “They’ve had a lot of cancellations. They’ve had issues. (The airline has) somewhat gotten better from month to month, but our (passenger) numbers aren’t getting better.”

Interim airport director Tairu (Tai) Zong said he has been told that when the crew is responsible for a flight being canceled out of Quincy, it’s occasionally because a pilot overslept or simply didn’t show up.

Aeronautics Committee members also learned from Zong that some flights that are supposed to be going directly from Quincy to Chicago — according to the city’s Essential Air Service (EAS) contract — are adding a stop in Burlington, Iowa. He said he did not have numbers for how many flights have made that extra stop.

“(The flights stopping in Burlington) are causing a lot of problems,” Zong told the committee. “I found a couple of times our passengers from Chicago are getting stranded in Burlington because they landed, and the aircraft broke or they experienced a weather issue. … (The airline is) just doing whatever they want. This is not the first time it has happened. It has happened for months.”

“I think that’s a question for EAS,” Quincy Mayor Mike Troup said. “That’s not our contract.”

“We’re not happy with (Southern Airways’) performance,” Entrup said after the meeting. “There’s all these little things that keep adding up. It only takes one time for (the airline) to screw up someone’s vacation plans or screw up their business trip plans, and they’re not going to try it again.”

Bauer asked Zong during the meeting about eight violations found during a Transportation Security Administration inspection completed in March. Zong said all of the issues have been corrected except for one. Details of the eight violations were unavailable.

“I understand. Things get messed up, and you have violations,” Bauer said. “But Tai brought it to us and told us about it. That did not happen before (when Chuck Miller was the airport director before he left in April). We were told (by Miller) all the paperwork is done and turned in. ‘It’s all taken care of.’ Well, yeah, (Miller) turned stuff in, but it still didn’t pass.”

The committee also learned that the airport is in danger of losing a couple of grants that would have helped pay for airline fuel and airport salaries. Entrup said the airport typically receives the grants annually. 

“Somehow they got shoved in a cabinet or got lost in a cabinet or a desk,” Entrup said.

Entrup believes a $24,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation from 2022 is likely going to be lost, and a $28,000 IDOT grant from 2023 hasn’t been turned in either.  Another grant for $74,000 for attachments to a recently purchased skid loader was received but later was returned.

“We didn’t use it,” Entrup said. “That was definitely a mistake by the previous (airport) administration. All of it is just paperwork and not doing the job properly.”

Zong said the airport still has about $200,000 in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to spend on reimbursement for operations costs. He’s been using that money instead of the other grants which now are expiring. He said he discovered an email from Miller in which he said not to worry about spending the grant money.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. (The grants) will never expire. Use the ARPA money,’” Zong said.

Mark Cestari, chief commercial officer for Southern Airways, said in an October 2023 interview with Muddy River News that several reasons — a pilot shortage, supply chain problems with the acquisition of parts, a lack of planes and escalating operating costs — have led to the declining numbers.

The Quincy City Council voted in August 2022 to have Southern Airways Express replace Cape Air as the airport’s essential air service provider. 

The last time the number of passengers out of Quincy topped 10,000 was in 2019, when 10,033 flew when Massachusetts-based Cape Air was the EAS provider.

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