Boutique Air (4B, San Francisco, CA) has clinched a two-year Essential Air Service (EAS) contract at Jackson, TN despite objections from rivals Southern Airways Express (9X, Memphis Int'l) and Air Choice One (3E, St. Louis Lambert Int'l).

According to a regulatory notice, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) selected Boutique Air for the service starting on June 1, 2021, through to May 31, 2023. It denied a joint motion by Southern Airways Express and Air Choice One to disqualify Boutique Air’s proposal on the grounds it had not met the contract's requirements.

Under the terms of the order, Boutique Air will provide a total of 18 non-stop round trips per week, including 12 weekly rotations to Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson and six weekly nonstop return flights to St. Louis Lambert Int'l, using eight- or nine-seat PC-12 at an annual subsidy of USD1.9 million for the first year and USD2 million for the second year.

Boutique Air’s proposal was unanimously supported by the Jackson-Madison County Airport Authority committee on the grounds that the carrier’s pressurised aircraft were better suited to the airport’s winter icing conditions.

The main thrust of the complaints by Southern Airways Express and Air Choice One was that Boutique Air had proposed four options for the EAS service, amongst which, Option 2, had suggested the use of a small hub airport, Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional, while EAS regulations required the use of a medium or large hub airport.

The airlines argued that Boutique Air’s proposal was financially unrealistic. They also requested that the DOT exercise its authority to determine if Boutique Air had engaged in uncompetitive behaviour in its EAS proposals at Carlsbad, NM and Chadron.

Explaining its decision to turn down their motions, the DOT said it was not selecting Boutique Air’s Option 2 proposal, thus rendering moot the movants’ argument as to Pensacola. It ruled that the financial viability of Boutique Air’s proposals for unsubsidised EAS at other communities was irrelevant to its proposal for subsidised EAS at Jackson. It also found no reasonable grounds to open an investigation into Boutique Air.

The DOT said Boutique Air had met the department’s selection criteria, and it found the airline’s service and subsidy levels reasonable. It pointed out that Boutique Air had been a partner in the EAS programme for several years, had included a marketing plan in its proposal, had interline ticket and baggage agreements in place with larger carriers, and had received community support.

The Jackson contract had formerly been held by Air Choice on a four-year term from March 11, 2017, through to May 31, 2021. The DOT ordered Air Choice One to continue with the service until Boutique Air could take over. Air Choice One currently provides Jackson with 18 non-stop return flights to St. Louis using 9-seat Cessna Aircraft Company (Wichita Cessna Aircraft Field) Grand Caravan aircraft, at an annual subsidy of USD1.8 million. On March 1, 2018, the DOT approved a schedule change resulting in 12 frequencies to St Louis and six to Atlanta.

Carriers who had vied for the new contract included Air Choice One, Boutique Air, Hyannis Air Service t/a Cape Air (9K, Hyannis), Silver Airways (3M, Fort Lauderdale Int'l), and Southern Airways Express.