Use it or lose it — Seymour recounts how we lost air service

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Use it or lose it —  Seymour recounts how  we lost air serviceJust a few months after regaining air service, the Indian Wells Valley Airport Board of Directors voted, after a closed-session discussion last Thursday, to terminate its contract with Boutique Airlines.

“No one likes to fail, but this one hit me really hard,” said IYK General Manager Scott Seymour, who addressed some of the forces that influenced the board’s decision as well as some of the public speculation sparked by the announcement.

Inyokern lost air service in 2013 when a combination of factors reduced ridership and prompted the former carrier to pull out.

Renewing service has since been a top priority of Seymour and the board, and after two failed attempts, IYK was able to secure a Department of Transportation grant to subsidize seats in hopes of reestablishing the market.

On Aug. 8 Boutique began flying its eight-seater plane out of IYK twice daily to LAX. While the service and staff received mostly positive reviews from the public, travelers expressed frustration with last-minute cancelations by Boutique and an inability to book flights more than two months in advance.

With limited transfer and baggage handling agreements, most passengers could not check luggage without having to go through security screening a second time at LAX. In addition, Navy travelers expressed concerns that they could not book flights through the defense travel system.

Seymour said that about 85 percent of the complaints he heard from the public were unfounded.

“Honestly, I think people just did not have the patience to make this work,” he said. “Sometimes you have to sit in a terminal for a few hours — it’s just a fact of life. If we are going to make this work, sometimes you have to give a little to get a little.

“And I know for a fact there were all-hands e-mails that went out [to DOD employees] that told people how to book flights.”

In the end, Seymour said the airport was unable to fill enough seats to make the venture viable. The DOT grant awarded to the airport gave $450,000 to subsidize service, and the community generated another $97,000 to augment the subsidy.

For August and September, the airport spent $190,000 to compensate Boutique for its minimum guarantee per flight.

“I never would have recommended this solution to the board if I did not think this would work,” said Seymour. With only 16 seats per day to fill, in a market that sees an estimated 120 per day traveling by air out of the valley, “I did not think we would have any problem making this work.”

Unless something changes within the industry, Seymour predicted it will be even more difficult to get another airline back to IYK.

“Beggars can’t be choosers. If people think there is going to be a bigger airline coming next, they are in for a surprise,” he said.

“Something our first consultant said to me when we started this process was the longer you go without an airline, the more people will get conditioned into their habits and their ways.”

The last day of service will be Nov. 30. The 40-some reservations made for December will be canceled. “I feel like Boutique did everything they could to make this work. They left $40,000 or $50,000 on the table, so I think it is obvious this was not a money grab.”

The remaining grant funds — which Seymour estimated to be a little more than $100,000 — will be returned to DOT. What’s left of community contributions will also be given back to donors.

Seymour said the airport will pursue another grant, although DOT grant stipulations prohibit service to LAX. “Vegas seems to make the most sense, and it’s the place people are asking for, but it’s a very expensive airport to fly into.

“And when people fly out of Inyokern, we won’t have TSA. So they will be flying into the nonsecure side and taking a van to go through screening.”

He said that he, his staff and the board are reviewing the lessons learned as they move forward in search of another solution.

Story First Published: 2017-10-20