California Pacific Airlines

California Pacific Airlines apparently stopped service to Pierre Jan. 17. (Courtesy)

 

It appears California Pacific Airlines is done flying passengers from Pierre and Watertown, South Dakota, to Denver.

Less than a year since the San Diego area airline bought Aerodynamics Inc., or ADI, and its federally subsidized schedule of 12 round trips a week Watertown-Pierre-Denver, it rather abruptly stopped.

Repeated calls and emails from the Capital Journal to CPAir officials went unanswered in the past two weeks. Unpaid bills in recent months from the airline signalled something wrong, including $38,000 owed to the city of Pierre, six months' worth of fees for using the airport.

Still, itt was a cold shot Thursday for would-be passengers who already paid to book flights.

Craig Johnson from Seattle told the Capital Journal the bad news on Thursday. Johnson, who grew up in Pierre, had recently booked a flight on CPAir  for him and three family members to visit his father, Dr. Lloyd Johnson, a retired dentist.

“CPAir has seemingly shut down, totally, everything,” said Johnson, who has been flying to Pierre for years, a couple times a year, including for the funeral of his mother, Gayle Johnson, in April.

 “In the past, we have had some challenges getting to Pierre, but nothing like this,” Johnson said.  

  He had no luck contacting anyone at CPAir this week, Johnson said.

But Mike Isaacs, manager of the Pierre Regional Airport, called Johnson’s wife, Theresa, in Seattle, one of several such calls Isaacs made on Thursday to ex-passengers of CPAir.

“I was calling folks, recommending they not plan on flying CPAir at this time,” Isaacs said.

The demise of CPAir’s flights to Pierre seemed imminent on Thursday, so he felt obligated to contact passengers who had booked now-defunct flights.

“I was strongly urging people to contact CPAir for refunds and make alternative plans,” Isaacs told the Capital Journal.

He and other civic leaders from Pierre and Watertown will hold a conference call Friday morning with officials of the U.S. Department of Transportation and he expects the feds will give the official nix to CPAir’s contract to provide air service to the two communities under the subsidized Essential Air Service program.

Meanwhile on Thursday, officials of SkyWest Airlines of St. George, Utah, visited Pierre.

“They were boots on the ground,” Isaacs said, and they scoped out the airport and the community. “Obviously they are interested, very interested.”

SkyWest, considered a major airline with a partnership with Alaska Airlines, is a great company, Johnson told the Capital Journal. He's familiar with SkyWest's work because he often flies Alaska Airlines, Johnson said. 

“I hope they come to Pierre,” Johnson said.

  Isaacs said he had wished in recent years SkyWest had bid for an EAS contract to serve Pierre, but the airline was busy seeking routes in other states.

SkyWest has agreements with several major airlines,  including Delta, which has the hub airport at Minneapolis-St. Paul.

   “It would be a seamless operation,” Isaacs said of the prospect of SkyWest starting flights to Pierre.

CPAir has had difficulties since November, when it began unsubsidized flights out of Carlsbad, California, to Las Vegas, San Jose and Phoenix.

Flights to Pierre and Watertown began being late or cancelled, Pierre Mayor Steve Harding and Watertown Mayor Sarah Caron told DOT officials in a Jan. 10 letter asking for emergency action to allow them to find another airline.

Joel Szabat,  a DOT official, responded this week online at www.regulations.gov. He wrote CPAir’s executive, Fernando Pineda, “reminding him that air carriers serving communities through the EAS program are required to provide reliable air transportation,” Szabat told Harding and Caron in a letter posted Jan. 16 to the federal website which acts as an official bulletin board.

Szabat said CPAir has 14 days to respond to the letter from DOT, which also “reserves the right to take further action if necessary to provide (Essential Air Service), including but not limited to, selecting a replacement carrier for California Pacific to provide EAS at Pierre and Watertown.”

 It’s a big change from last summer, when at the behest of Pierre and Watertown leaders, DOT awarded CPAir a new two-year EAS contract starting Aug. 1, 2018, paying the airline $7.1 million per year in a reimbursement process to provide 12 round trips a week to the two cities.

On Wednesday, CPAir, out of money and credit, apparently, could not complete its Pierre-Watertown flight because it could not buy fuel at the Denver airport, Isaacs and Harding said.

CPAir did not fly on Thursday to Pierre and Watertown and has no plans to fly those routes in the foreseeable future, Isaacs said.

On Tuesday, DOT posted a request for proposals from airlines to provide EAS-subsidized service to Pierre and Watertown.

 Isaacs said he will learn much on Friday in the conference call to DOT about how fast another airline could begin serving Pierre and Watertown.

 “Stay tuned,” he said Thursday.

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