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Two Airlines Vie for Rutland's Passenger Service

A sign for the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport sign
Nina Keck
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VPR File
Two airlines - Cape Air and Boutique Air - are vying to provide essential air service to Rutland.

Two regional airlines are competing to provide passenger service for Rutland Southern Vermont Airport — and both companies promise state-of-the-art planes.

Since 2007, Cape Air has provided Rutland with at least three flights a day to and from Boston using Cessna 402s. These are small, nine-passenger twin-engine planes, that the Hyannis-based airline says were built in the late 1970s and '80s.

Two years ago, when Cape Air's contract was up for renewal, Rutland Mayor David Allaire says a competing airline — San Francisco-based Boutique Air — bid to take over Rutland’s air service with a fleet of newer, faster and more luxurious airplanes.

Boutique-Air-plane.jpg
Credit courtesy Boutique Air
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Boutique Air, a San Francisco based airline, wants to bring its eight-passenger, Pilatus PC-12s to Rutland to provide passenger air service to and from Boston.

"It was not an easy decision,” Allaire said. "We had been served by Cape Air for a number of years, and I think were pleased with the service. But Boutique Air came in and they had a great argument about, you know, 'perhaps you'd like to upgrade a bit.'"

Allaire said Boutique's planes have a pressurized cabin allowing them to fly higher and faster than Cape Air's planes. He said Boutique promised an overall flight experience better than what Rutland was currently getting.

So the mayor decided to give Boutique Air a try, believing newer planes would mean fewer mechanical breakdowns and pressurized cabins would allow pilots to fly above bad weather, which is often an issue in Rutland. And, he hoped nicer planes would encourage more ridership.

Boutique-Air-Interior-Plane_0.jpg
Credit courtesy Boutique Air
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Boutique Air's 8-passenger planes have a pressurized cabin and can travel higher and faster than planes used by Cape Air and also have an onboard lavatory.

But it wasn’t entirely the mayor’s decision.

Federal tax dollars make flights in and out of Rutland more affordable, as part of the Essential Air Service program that subsidizes small-market airlines. About 175 communities currently benefit from the program at an overall cost of nearly $300 million.

The program is a favorite target of budget hawks in Washington, D.C., but Rutland city leaders call it a vital investment. 

In Rutland the subsidy totaled $3.3 million for the last two years, or about $148 per passenger.

But Boutique’s proposal two years ago would have cost $1.1 million more in subsidies, something the U.S. Department of Transportation said it couldn’t justify.  It overruled the mayor and renewed Cape Air's contract.

But fast forward to today and both companies are once again competing to provide Essential Air Service to Rutland.

Tecnam-Cape-Air-2019.jpg
Credit courtesy
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Cape Air's new 9-passenger Tecnam P2012 planes will become part of their fleet this year.

This time around, Cape Air’s Andrew Bonney said their proposal includes brand-new planes.

“For the last eight years we’ve been in development with Tecnam, which is a general aviation aircraft manufacturer in Italy, to build the next generation, multi-engine commuter aircraft that will have nine passenger seats and two engines for multi-engine safety,” Bonney said.

The new planes have been approved in Europe, he said, but still need an OK from the Federal Aviation Administration. Bonney said he expects that approval soon.

If Cape Air wins Rutland’s contract, Bonney said the new planes would go into service in Rutland on Nov. 1, with no change to ticket prices.

A flight to or from Boston on Cape Air costs about $99 - less when you buy your ticket early. A book of 10 trips drops the one-way ticket price to $79.

One of the quirky aspects of Cape Air’s current fleet of planes is passengers can sometimes sit in the co-pilot seat if there is not a second crew member on board.

Bonney said their new planes have a ninth seat dedicated in the passenger section, along with two seats up front for crew.

“So by effectively having nine seats on every passenger flight we are adding 12.5 percent more seats into the Rutland market than with an eight-seat aircraft," he said. "And on the margin, that makes a really significant difference into the amount of capacity that Rutland will have.”

Seats line the interior of Cape Air's new Tecnam P2012 Traveler plane
Credit Cape Air, courtesy
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Interior shot of Cape Air's new Tecnam P2012 Traveler plane. Cape Air expects eight of the new planes to be delivered this year and has ordered 12 more for delivery in 2020.

Increasing ridership is important for Rutland’s Airport. If the number of people flying out hits 10,000 a year, then the airport would qualify for an additional $1 million in federal airport improvement funding.

Bonney said Cape Air has increased ridership by 123 percent since it began serving Rutland in 2007, and he says last year’s ridership was the highest in six years.

But Boutique Air’s CEO Shawn Simpson says in markets where they’ve taken over service, ridership has grown as well, often by between 10 and 50 percent and some markets, like Johnstown, Penn., he said, have grown even more. Simpson credits the planes they use as the main driver. Their fleet of Pilatus PC12’s feel luxurious, he says, with roomy leather seats and a lavatory.

“When you have that positive experience it just makes you feel very comfortable with flying and when you’re flying in a much older plane, it doesn’t have to be Cape Air, it can be any old plane, sometimes it doesn’t make you feel as comfortable," says Simpson, adding, "People generally prefer pressurized aircraft because it’s easier to get over weather and they’re generally quieter and faster."

Shawn Abrantes, the supervisor at Messina International Airport in New York, said he’s had experience with both carriers. He said Cape Air provided passenger service there for eight years until they switched to Boutique Air in 2017.

Abrantes said ridership with Boutique is up slightly.

According to Abrantes, Boutique's planes have been a big hit with passengers“They like the ride, they like the speed, they like the height ... Nobody complains about the plane,” Abrantes said.

And, since switching to Boutique, Abrantes said the airport has tripled the amount of jet fuel it sells, which has helped the airport’s bottom line.

"The bottom line is to have two airlines expressing an interest in serving the Rutland area and the Rutland Southern Vermont Airport is a real plus for us." - Rutland Mayor David Allaire

But maintaining a pressurized plane and using two pilots on every flight is more costly, Simpson said. And Boutique's multi-year proposal is more expensive than Cape Air's, though Simpson says their ticket prices to and from Boston would be in line with what Cape Air is currently charging. 

You can link to Cape Air's and Boutique Air's proposals here.

According to proposals submitted by the companies this week, Boutique Air's costs to operate air service in Rutland for two years would require $4,033,087 in federal subsidies while Cape Air would require $3,456,833.

Allaire says he’ll meet next week with airport and local business leaders to discuss the proposals. The new contracts won’t go into effect until Nov. 1.

“I wouldn’t say I’m leaning either way. There are really good points on both ends,” Allaire said. “And you know, I guess the bottom line for me is that to have two airlines expressing an interest in serving the city of Rutland and the Rutland area and the Rutland Southern Vermont Airport is a real plus for us.”

Local business leaders agree with the mayor. 

Mary Cohen, head of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, and Tyler Richardson, director of the Rutland Economic Development Corporation, are both part of a committee working with the mayor to assess the contracts. Cohen says Cape Air has an office in downtown Rutland which the city appreciates. But she says Boutique Air has talked about incorporating car rental services at the airport which she says would be great for travelers flying into Rutland. She and Richardson say competition will only make the region's air service better. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation typically allows four to six weeks for community input before making a final decision.

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