Cape Air grounds White Plains flights

LAKE CLEAR – Cape Air has pulled the plug on its new service between the Adirondack Regional Airport and White Plains before the first planes even take off.

Michelle Haynes, Cape Air’s communications director, said the decision was made based on poor advance bookings for the once-a-day, six-days-a-week round-trip service, which was scheduled to start June 26 and run through Labor Day. Out of more than 1,100 available seats over that time frame on the company’s nine-seat Cessna planes, only roughly two dozen seats were booked, Haynes said.

“We are going to fly the people that did book,” she said, “but going forward, for the present, there will be no more scheduled flights between Saranac Lake and Westchester airport. The demand simply was not there to make it a viable route for Cape Air. It is not good business sense to be flying a route with no passengers in the seats. So we had to make a prudent business decision.”

The cost of the service may be one reason why it hasn’t generated much interest. The White Plains flights, at $500 to $600 for a round-trip ticket, are roughly double the company’s fares to Boston, which Cape Air serves daily, year-round from Lake Clear. The White Plains service costs more because, unlike the Boston service, it’s not federally subsidized.

“That’s probably a piece of it,” said Andrew Bonney, the Hyannis, Massachusetts-based airline’s vice president of planning. “Price is one of the big determinants of how people choose airline service in general.”

John Matarese, who lives in New Jersey but has a second home on Rainbow Lake, said he looked into the White Plains-Lake Clear service after hearing about it from a friend and reading about it in the Enterprise.

“I was very interested in it when I first saw it come to light, because White Plains is relatively local to where I live and if I didn’t want to drive, I could use it,” Matarese said. “But then when I looked at the pricing on it, it was just extraordinarily high. It was cost-prohibitive.”

When Cape Air applied last year to renew its federal Essential Air Service subsidy to serve Adirondack Regional, it sought extra funds to add a daily round-trip to White Plains. It wasn’t picked by the U.S. Department of Transportation because it was seen as too costly and outside EAS’ “essential” mandate.

In recent years, Cape Air has provided a fourth daily round-trip to and from Boston in summertime, without a subsidy, to meet demand. It announced in April that it would make that fourth summer flight go to White Plains instead. Once passengers arrive in White Plains, they would have the option of taking a van to Midtown Manhattan for an extra $85.

Asked how the company marketed the service, Bonney said Cape Air sent an email blitz just last week to more than 30,000 of its customers who’ve flown through the Lake Clear airport, but it only resulted in a handful of new bookings. It’s unclear how much the service was pushed in the New York City market. Advertising in the New York City area is “prohibitively expensive” and therefore a tough market to crack, Haynes said, although she said she didn’t know the specifics of how the service was marketed downstate.

“Right now we want to give the community what they want and it doesn’t appear, from the numbers that we need, that White Plains is what the community wants,” she said. “Boston continues to be what they want.”

Corey Hurwitch, the Lake Clear airport’s manager, said the company had warned him its White Plains bookings were low.

“They took a big step on this,” he said. “I appreciate them looking into it. We hoped it was going to work. I thought it was going to work. I was really surprised that it didn’t, especially in the summertime.”

Cape Air’s push to add White Plains service to its federal subsidy was backed by a group of local residents, the region’s state and federal politicians and some of the area’s largest employers, including Adirondack Health, the two local colleges, St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers and Trudeau Institute. Given that support, why didn’t the demand for tickets materialize?

“You got me,” Hurwitch said. “They may have thought the price was going to be the same (as Boston). I’m not really sure why.”

The airport is owned and operated by the town of Harrietstown. Town Councilman Ron Keough said he still thinks there’s support in the community for air service to New York City, but it takes time for awareness of it to grow.

“It took us a while to build the regular flights to Boston, and I think this would take some time to do, too, but I understand their economics of it,” he said.

For potential customers who may still be interested in flying to White Plains via Lake Clear this summer, Haynes said there are roughly 300 empty seats left on flights that the company will still run. They can be found by using the reservation system on the company’s website, www.capeair.com.

“The passengers who bought tickets from us that we are keeping our commitment to, some of those are one or two people per flight,” Haynes said. “There are flights in June, July and August where there are seats available.”

Now that the White Plains service is being nixed, Haynes was asked if Cape Air will go back to providing a fourth, unsubsidized, daily flight to Boston as it has done in prior summers.

“If the demand is there and we have all the seats (for the three subsidized flights) filled, we will definitely consider it,” she said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.