Economic Development

Southern Airways Explores Options for Service Here

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – An executive with Southern Airways Express sees Allegiant Air’s impending departure from Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport as an opportunity, but no one is saying how soon that potential could become reality.

Mark Cestari, chief commercial officer with the carrier, met Tuesday morning in the airport terminal with some 30 representatives of the airport and its tenants, the business community and the general public.

Over the last few months, Southern has been in discussions with airport officials about establishing service to Detroit and the Washington area via Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Cestari said.

“This is a conversation. We have not made any decision about Youngstown. We talk to lots and lots of communities all the time,” Cestari said. The point of Tuesday’s gathering was to gather “first-person anecdotal communication with the locals who hopefully would support this service” to supplement the market research already done, he said.

“We won’t be making any decisions today.”

The discussions are proceeding as Allegiant Air, the sole provider at the airport of regularly scheduled flights, enters its final month of operations here. Allegiant, a low-cost carrier that 11 years ago began service to vacation destinations from the airport, announced in August that it would discontinue that service Jan. 4.

“What we’re doing is exploring options,” John Moliterno, executive director of the Western Reserve Port Authority, said. The port authority operates the airport.

“With the loss of Allegiant, we’re trying to do what’s best for the community,” affirmed Marty Loney, chairman of the port authority board of directors.

Over the past four years, Southern Airways has grown to 22 aircraft from 12, to 21 destinations from 12, and to 668 departures a week from 312. The company was founded in 2013 and is based in Mississippi. One of its hubs is Pittsburgh International Airport, from where it flies to eight small towns in the immediate region as well as Harrisburg and Baltimore. A second hub is at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport.

Above: On its website, Southern Airways Express shows where it currently flies.

The challenge for areas like Youngstown is that even low-cost carriers such as Allegiant have shifted their focus from satellite airports like Youngstown-Warren to larger markets like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, just as retailers want to be in a mall with other big-box stores, Cestari said.

Southern Airways is designed to provide connecting service to legacy carriers (Delta, United, American) and the low-cost carriers, as well as offer destinations for people who want only to travel from one market to another. “The combination of being able to serve all those markets we think is a formula for our success,” he said.

Pricing for the Detroit flights would likely be between $100 and $200, and $125 to $225 each way depending on how early seats were booked in advance of the flights, he said. Because of the size of the aircraft, Southern isn’t required to provide Transportation Security Administration screening, which would shorten the time needed to be at the airport. But he did not rule out TSA screening.

Dan Crouse, real estate agent with Routh-Hurlbert Real Estate Co., Howland, expressed interest in the proposed Baltimore-Washington flights. “We do go to Washington a couple of times a year,” he said, “so that service, if the door-to-door times and cost make sense — and they appear to make sense — that would be interesting.”

The airport and port authority officials who previously met with Southern Airways’ representatives are “fascinated” with its business model, Moliterno said. “It’s different than what we’re used to but it’s unique enough and been successful enough to provide another option for air service at this airport.”

Service to Detroit and Baltimore-Washington were discussed as initial options, the former because of the concentration of automobile manufacturing and suppliers in the Valley, and the latter for both business and leisure travel in the Washington, D.C., market, as well as to connect to other destinations.

Cestari said he was disappointed in the results of a survey of local businesses. The survey pointed to low demand for service to Baltimore-Washington – 80% of respondents said they were unlikely to use such service from the airport.

“We thought that the Washington service would be more popular because it’s a place that people go for both business and to see their elected officials,” he said, “but also for leisure.”

He attributed the response in part to respondents not realizing that Baltimore and Washington are one market, and that the Baltimore airport offers more convenient access to the Capitol than Reagan National Airport or Dulles International Airport.

“A lot of people don’t realize that BWI Airport is the fastest-growing airport in the Washington metro, so they might not have automatically made the connection that Baltimore could get them to Washington. We’re going to clarify that and do a little more digging down to see what people really think,” he added.

Dan Dickten, airport aviation director, said he “was a little let down with the actual participation” at Tuesday’s meetings. “There were some questions that only had five or six [responses. Hopefully we can get a better response next time,” by reaching beyond the main distribution list the airport used in invited business leaders to the meeting.

During the discussion, another option that came up was Columbus. “It’s definitely something that the group here seemed to feel that we should look at and we’ll be doing just that,” Cestari said. Because Southern Airways is small, it can respond to the community’s needs rather than laying out specific destinations and exclude all others.

“If Columbus works here, that’s great. Maybe that’s the right recipe for us,” he continued. “That’s why we do these kinds of forums because one size doesn’t fit all.”

Someone who drives to Columbus for business reimbursed at the standard rate of 55 cents per mile would get $150 in mileage. That excludes expenses for meals or a hotel stay if necessary, said Rich Edwards, owner of “R” Ski Ranch inc., Austintown, and secretary-treasurer of the port authority board. Based on that assumption, a flight to Columbus rather than a drive might be more economical.

“What are you getting done in the car? On a plane you’d still be able to continue to work,” Loney added.

Should Southern establish a presence at Youngstown-Warren and develop a market, the airline has half a dozen other destinations it would consider, Cestari said. Flights to destinations such as Florida, or even Chicago, are beyond Southern’s footprint based on the range of the planes it operates. They could, however, become options as its business grows and acquires larger aircraft with a greater range, he said.

Southern representatives will continue their discussions with airport officials as well as regional business leaders, “just to try to see at what point this is a fit for us,” Cestari said. “But this was a good step today to keep the process going.”

Pictured at top: Mark Cestari is chief commercial officer with Southern Airways Express.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.