THIEF RIVER FALLS — The CEO of a regional airline that provides service to Thief River Falls visited the town to assure residents that the airline is working to fix recent troubles.
Shawn Simpson, CEO of San Francisco-based Boutique Air, attended an Airport Authority meeting and also met with local business and community leaders to expand on the scope of issues the airline faces, including a pilot shortage and lack of aircraft in the region.
Boutique Air, which has operated out of Thief River Falls since July 2016, has seen its arrival and departure reliability percentage fluctuate from the high 90s to high 70s throughout the year. Some months have seen double-digit cancellations that have left passengers searching for alternative ways to get to Minneapolis. The airline operates as part of the Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program, which provides eligible smaller communities access to a hub airport. Boutique Air receives more than $3 million in federal subsidies to maintain its Thief River Falls-to-Minneapolis route.
“The driving factor for cancellations in the warmer months is going to be generally driven by ... the pilot shortage,” Simpson told the Herald. “If we don’t have enough pilots, even if we have extra airplanes we could bring over here, then we’re not able sometimes to get them in position if we’re too tight on pilots.”
Mechanical issues and problems getting parts also have been factors impacting the need for cancellations, according to Simpson.
“Some of the airplane types that we have gone with, they have their susceptibilities, so that’s why we are trying out some new airplanes that we think may be more robust in terms of their reliability,” Simpson said. “Those are probably the two biggest driving factors, just having the pilots, and then having aircraft that work well under the circumstances.”
The Pilatus PC 12 makes up the bulk of the airline’s fleet with 27 planes. The airline recently acquired two Piaggio P.180 airplanes, which it hopes to roll out in the coming months, after testing and pilot training are done in Texas.
Pilot and mechanical problems account for two of the issues the airline has experienced, but airport manager Joe Hedrick identified communication as a third problem.
A situation that has occurred at the airport has been the airline’s tardiness in deciding to cancel a flight, instead opting to tell passengers the flight is delayed, according to Hedrick. This leads to passengers waiting at the airport for an extended period of time, only then to be told the flight is canceled. That, in turn, causes customers to scramble for a way to get to Minneapolis if they have a connecting flight.
“I kind of hammered on that during the (airport authority) meeting,” Hedrick said. “I brought it back, and I was like 'communication, communication, communication.' (Simpson’s) whole methodology is these things will solve themselves if we had a substantial pilot pool and enough aircraft, and those two things are what he is really focused on. But for me, that third leg of the tripod is, when things go bad, you have to be able to communicate effectively with your passengers to minimize any negative feelings that the passengers may have towards the airline, and minimize the disruption that it causes.”
Simpson said that he has added three Boutique ground staff to Thief River Falls airport. Hedrick finds that encouraging.
“That will be doubling their staff here,” Hedrick said. “That should help in that respect. I intentionally mentioned empowering the CSA’s (customer service agents) because I’ve heard many times where the CSA’s are in the terminal, they are looking at a two-hour delay, they might even know what the nature of what the mechanical (problem) is, and drawing from past experiences, know that two hours is not a realistic time. But they are handcuffed, they are not at liberty to tell the passenger it’s probably not going to happen in two hours, we’re looking at four hours minimum. Hopefully, (Simpson) takes it to heart and does in fact empower his staff to more quickly contact and share that information with passengers.”
Simpson said he intends to address the communication problems, though he was vague in how that would be accomplished.
Despite the issues that have occurred with Boutique, Hedrick feels the airport authority meeting with Simpson was positive.
“His presence here helped in that, who better to explain those issues than the CEO of the company?” he said. “(Simpson) freely admits that we need to do better, we will do better. So that was very beneficial. Also, his willingness to travel this far just shows his earnestness to the board and to the community, that he’s not just here collecting a subsidy. He means for his company and our market to do well.”