Airport director urges community to support airline rebid process

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“The Greenbrier Valley Airport serves five counties and cannot survive with an airline that doesn’t show up,” said Greenbrier Valley Airport Director Stephen Snyder in a presentation aimed at informing county residents of Via Airlines’ empty promises for reliable air travel at the Tuesday night county commission meeting.

Snyder, who spoke to the gathering for nearly an hour, said the airline has “fallen well short of every single thing they promised,” since their contract began in June of 2016.

Snyder detailed at length Via’s day to day, week to week, and monthly unannounced schedule changes, rolling delays, late cancellations, and general lack of communications that have left passengers without informed notifications to make alternate plans, all while continuing to receive federal subsidy compensation “for flights flown with very few, or even zero passengers, due to schedule confusion and passengers who turned in tickets and exited the market.” Over the the time period of late 2016 and early 2017, for example, he said, there were numerous instances of “only one, or even zero, EMB-1456 aircraft in the system available for flights.” Cases have also been documented of aircraft departing LWB for charter operations, leaving the airport with no aircraft for Essential Air Service (EAS).

Snyder recounted that at the June 22 Greenbrier County Airport Authority (GCAA) meeting, the board voted unanimously to sent The Department of Transportation (DOT) a letter requesting authorization to rebid the Via contract. But that letter, he said, has yet to be sent because the community is not united with the county commission and the GCAA in the rebid request, and instead is united with Via to promote “improved airline service in our area.”

The Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce, the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the city of Lewisburg all have sent letters to DOT asking to retain Via as EAS provider for the valley, and to disregard and take no action regarding the request by the airport authority to authorize a rebid of the contract with Via Air. Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester called the rebid request “premature and ill-advised at this point.”

That view is understandable. Summertime is, after all, Greenbrier Valley’s peak tourist season.

In a letter to the DOT, Via Chairman Amos Vizer stated Via has formed a “strong relationship” with a group composed of community members and representatives of major corporations, the CBV and the mayor of Lewisburg. On the other hand, the letter continued, Via struggles for the support of the airport authority and has “encountered an adversarial relationship with the airport manager.”

In seeking clear guidance for the DOT as to the definition of “community,” Vizer asked, “When the DOT is seeking community inputs, is it only the airport authority inputs or is it inputs from the true members of the community and elected officials that are utilizing the air service?”

Snyder called this “a divide and conquer strategy [by Via] in operation in our community.” Having dealt with the airline’s “definitely not perfect” service for the past year, Snyder implied he may be in a qualified position to understand the reasons why Via “struggles to gain the support of the authority.” This lesson has to be learned, he said, “Empty promises do not bring tourists to our area.”

Vizer stated he did not foresee continuing operation at LWB “as an endeavor we can pursue under the current terms” and asked to be given the opportunity to voluntarily withdraw from EAS service in Lewisburg prior to any rebid decision.

Snyder said Vizer is attempting to avoid a crippling $500,000 fine for pulling out and leaving the area in the dark. He did not believe the DOT would permit Via to leave the contract without a heavy fine.

At the conclusion of Snyder’s presentation, Commissioner Mike McClung asked the assembly, “Does anyone here doubt that what you’ve just heard was true?” He asked community members to oppose “strongly and loudly” the “coalition of ignorance,” proposed by Manchester and instead support the efforts of the GCAA and the commission in seeking a rebid of the Via contract.

Commissioner Lowell Rose stated that the mayor’s letter was “totally out of line,” and that the airport, as a mainstay for economic development, is the “lifeblood of the county.”

Lewisburg resident Jennifer Baker was in full support of Snyder, in relating her daughter’s experiences at the airport last Sunday, as she, together with a crowd of angry PGA golfers and guests, dealt with hours of delays of a scheduled flight to Charlotte, NC. The plane was scheduled to fly out around 9 a.m., but didn’t depart until after 4 p.m.

The solution, as understood by Greg Furlong, vice president of sales and event services with The Greenbrier, is to have all parties meet and agree on what is best for the community. Furlong said the Greebrier is losing thousands of dollars weekly to other resorts. “We all need to be on the same page,” he said.