While working on improvements,Via Air asked for “continued patience” at a meeting held on Mar. 9 at Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center in Lewisburg.
Four Via Air representatives were challenged to explain why flight cancellations have left hundreds without access to reliable air travel over the past few months. Attending the meeting were community leaders and frustrated customers who came to hear how Via would improve the situation.
Via Air began providing air service to the Greenbrier Valley Airport in September 2016 under Essential Air Service (EAS) regulations with 12 non-stop flights per week from Charlotte, N.C. By October, a large number of deficiencies had been documented along with numerous complaints by customers, according to a letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT) from the Greenbrier County Commission.
Stories began circulating of stranded passengers, flights canceled without notice and unannounced schedule changes that made local air travel nearly impossible. In addition, customers could not reach a Via employee for resolution to their flight cancellations, bookings, or refunds.
Abject and apologetic, Via Vice President of Operations Matt Macri said, “I am truly sorry about the harm done to the community.” Plane repairs were a problem and over-extensions were also a problem, he said. “Once behind, it was hard to get ahead. We are working on corrective action on many fronts.”
The number one challenge, Macri said, has been aircraft availability. An initial plan for an external maintenance service company did not work out; in the meantime, two new maintenance facilities have been located. Via now has three dedicated aircraft, one for the two EAS airports serviced by Via (Greenbrier Valley and Shenandoah Valley Airport in Virginia), with the third on hand for rotations. Had this been the case three months ago, there would not have been a problem with flight availability, Macri said. “Getting planes turned around quickly is our challenge. And now with spare aircraft, we can do that.”
Macri also said, “We are no longer committed to any further charters,” referring to dedicated EAS planes being used to fulfill private charters instead of for scheduled flights from the Greenbrier Valley.
Another challenge has been a communications failure between passengers and the ticket desk. Via has hired additional customer support staff for hours of peak demand to enhance the operational flow, and, together with newly purchased software to handle rebooking procedures, which, he said, will be fully operational by mid-April, scheduling will be faster. Calling a ticketing and baggage handling contract with a major carrier “a done deal,” Macri said, “with 90 percent confidence,” it will also be in place by Apr. 30.
In spite of these promising words, the response from Greenbrier Valley Airport Manager Steve Snyder was: “I want you to be successful, but we’re asking the DOT to replace you if you’re not.” Snyder, who was not at the meeting but communicated via a conference call connection, said repeatedly, “I want to push the ‘I-believe’ button, but I can’t.”
The only thing that seemed to drive a response from Via, Snyder said, is direct intervention from DOT.
In a letter to the DOT, Snyder wrote, “The carrier promises great improvements, but has done so repeatedly in the past with no tangible results. Our success and/or failure with the tourism and business communities hinges on reliable air service.”
The letter, dated Mar. 3, concluded that only if Via can show sustained performance levels that comply with DOT contractual standards, and have concrete evidence that they are capable performing at those levels for the entire contract period, will their request to compete for the service be considered by GVAA board of directors.
Others at the forum also expressed disappointment and distrust in the airline’s reliability. One woman said, “I want to support Via, but it’ll be a long time before I’ll book a flight.”
“The Greenbrier resort has more at stake than anyone,” said Greg Furlong, vice president of sales and event services at The Greenbrier. “Millions of dollars are at stake. The Greenbrier needs to be able to book a year out for up to 400 people in one day with confidence.”
Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester said, “Obviously there’s been a lot of regret, but sorry doesn’t walk the dog. Nobody wants to be disappointed.”
“Having happened to come after the floods in June, this has really damaged the area in terms of tourism and economic issues, making it hard to market Greenbrier Valley,” said Heather Hanna with the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation.
Macri said, “We want to support Greenbrier Valley economic interests, and the best way to do that is for us to be successful.”
“The response from the community in coming to the meeting has made me think you haven’t given up,” Macri said. “My intent is to build your trust.”
What will it take to earn the community’s trust, he asked the group at large. Snyder responded, “To maintain a flight schedule no matter whether it’s booked or not. That’s when trust will come back.”
“Proof is the only thing I can offer,” Macri said. He urged patience, and stated they will be a reliable airline to the Greenbrier Valley: “Watch us.”