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Published: Thursday, 7/9/2009

JetAmerica's status disputed

BY NEENA SATIJA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Scheduled or unscheduled?

For indirect air carrier JetAmerica, the label isn't clear, but the distinction is key. JetAmerica officials say the company is an unscheduled public charter. That definition means it does not need to secure take-off or landing slot times from high-density airports such as Newark.

"We're not scheduled service, we are charter service, so there are no limitations for that," said Vice President of Operations Brian Burling, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration told the company as much earlier in the year. But he said the FAA changed its tune when it learned of the company's success offering fares as low as $9 from a variety of airports, including Toledo Express Airport.

He said the FAA informed JetAmerica it needed landing slots the day after the company filed a press release boasting tens of thousands of customers. Citing continued difficulties getting slot times, JetAmerica announced last week it would delay its first flight from July 13 to August 13, and promised to reimburse the more than 6,000 customers affected.

"When we got under the microscope of the government entities for doing a great PR job, I guess they really took a look at our whole operation and I guess they re-evaluated the specific regulations at the time," said Mr. Burling.

Federal Aviation Administration officials tell a different story.

"We don't classify JetAmerica. We classify their service plan," FAA spokesman Laura Brown said. "If they're going to be operating flights that occur at the same time on a regular basis, it's considered regularly scheduled or regularly conducted service."

On its Web site, JetAmerica advertises flights from Newark to Toledo leaving at 3:30 p.m., 10:05 p.m., and 10:10 p.m. on Mondays,

Wednesdays, and Fridays. Schedules listed for other routes advertise similar patterns.

"Those are obviously scheduled operations," Ms. Brown said.

JetAmerica booked 20,000 seats in its first week of advertising in late May. The company leases its aircraft from the charter service Miami Air International.

Ms. Brown said the FAA had no contact with JetAmerica before seeing the company's press release on May 27. The FAA contacted JetAmerica the next day to explain that the company needed slots.

Spokesmen for both organizations said they worked together throughout June and early July to get the Newark slots. But because of contract and cost issues, the company says it couldn't get the slots in time to take off July 13. According to JetAmerica spokesman Bryan Glazer, the cost of the slots rose from $1,000 or $2,000 to $40,000, ultimately costing the company as much as $500,000 a year.

Mr. Burling said that the price has gone down in negotiations and that the slots will end up costing JetAmerica "a lot less" than that figure. For now, they're reimbursing customers a total of $500,000 and promising them perks for flights booked after Aug. 1, including waived reservation and luggage fees.

Jerry Chabler, a member of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board, said he had no idea that JetAmerica had problems getting slots until July 3, the same day it told customers of the problem.

"We sure should have been given a heads-up," he said. "JetAmerica has to put it together, not the port authority."

Carla Firestone, a spokesman for the port authority, said that the label for JetAmerica was not clear-cut, but that the port authority would unofficially call it a "scheduled charter."

Mr. Chabler said he hoped JetAmerica would be back in business come August, but he said he had doubts. JetAmerica's president, John Weikle, also founded the low-cost air carrier Skybus in 2007, and that venture ended less than a year later.

"At this point, the ball is in the court of JetAmerica," Mr. Chabler said. "Based upon what I know and based upon the information I had, I'm not that optimistic."

Contact Neena Satija at:

nsatija@theblade.com

or 419-724-6272.



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