By Mary Alice Murphy
Shawn Simpson, Boutique Air chief executive officer, visited Silver City on Thursday, May 31, to talk about the success of the airline' operations and to promote its proposed bid to continue providing flights through the federal government's essential air service to and from Grant County and Albuquerque and to and from Grant County and Phoenix, Ariz.
"We started the airline in 2009," Simpson said. "We started with wanting to do something different and better. We focused on technology. We did research for about four years. In 2013-14, we started the airline operations. We now have daily service to 30 cities throughout the country. We have 450 employees. We focus on reliability, customer service and technology."
He agreed that Silver City flights had recently faced issues. "When you manage 110 flights a day, there are problems occasionally. We have 150 customer service employees to help the passengers. We have good phone service. We answer the phones from 3 a.m. to midnight."
Simpson introduced customer service representative in Grant County, Belinda Drye, "who is on top of our statistics. We answer the phones within 1 ½ minutes."
Drye said the system receives between 450 to 600 calls a day. "Ninety-four to 98 percent are answered on the first call. If your call goes to voice mail, we call back within 10 minutes."
Simpson said he used to work for Google, which started small by putting the customer first. "We try to make it easier for our customers. You can book and cancel by phone. I did a booking recently on American Airlines and when I realized I couldn't fly that date, I tried to cancel and couldn't do it online. We have done a lot of things to make it easy to book a flight."
He talked about the primary aircraft the company uses. It has 21 Pilatus PC-12s. "They have modern avionics. We are safety rated by ARG/US and Wyvern. We are well known for our safety and reliability. We like the aircraft, because it is in production and has immediate availability."
The planes feature executive configuration for eight to nine person, are pressurized and have an enclosed lavatory. He said the company also owns several King Air 350s, which may fly one to 3 minutes faster than the Pilatus. "But the King Airs are more expensive to operate. They have fallen somewhat out of favor. The Pilatus has become popular, because its one engine is so reliable. It is a jet with the propeller in front. The King Air is a turbo-prop."
He showed the route map for Boutique. "We started our service in Clovis, after Great Lakes abandoned them. We fly from Clovis to Dallas, Texas. After our success in Clovis, folks here called us and asked us to bid for service. Most of our service is EAS. We do some charter flights. We did have air service from Albuquerque to Los Alamos, but we were competing with the driving traffic."
Chelsea Hotchkiss of Insurance First and Air Shuttle asked what determines the flight times to and from Phoenix.
"We think about who we are catering to," Simpson replied. "Do we want to get people from outside Phoenix who are coming in and want to connect to Silver City or do we do it the other way, leaving from Silver City to Phoenix and back later in the day? When there is only one round-trip between two cities, we usually made them midday, rather than early or late. You have more flights to Albuquerque and back.
"We have no bag fees," Simpson continued. "Every passenger is guaranteed 50 pounds of luggage. If you have additional baggage, we will do our best to accommodate you or put it on the next flight out. We have no cancellation fees and no unaccompanied minor fees. Our reservations are available on many services, such as Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport. We use ITA software."
He said Silver City is seeing more passenger enplanements on Boutique than it has ever seen before.
"Originally when we began here, we just went back and forth to Albuquerque," Simpson said. "Then people said they wanted a flight to Phoenix."
He noted that although there is a big pilot shortage all over the country, "We have a lot of pilots. Pilatus has a slightly shorter number of flight hours required at 1200 hours to pilot the Pilatus. King Air requires 1500. We have seven pilot bases, with one in Phoenix and one in Dallas in this area."
Since beginning in Silver City in January 2015, Boutique has flown 8,376 flights, with a 98.58 completion rate. "Some flights have not been completed due to weather," Simpson said. "We have served 33,763 passengers since we began here."
He acknowledged that the airline has had some problems this year. "From January 2018 to the present, our completion rate has been 96.03 percent, with 968 flights. "We know that is lower than what Silver City is used to. We serve some communities in Minnesota and New York, where we had de-icing issues this year. We sent more planes up north, which impacted our whole system. So, we decided to buy more planes. Since January, we have added three airplanes to prevent the difficulties in January, February and March. In April and May this year, we have 98.96 percent reliability. We canceled four flights due to weather."
On a different topic, he noted that airlines can have a lot of paperwork. "Six months ago, we rolled out a program internally. We have two iPads in every airplane. The pilot arrives and checks in and it's recorded. We now have accurate on-time performance data. Our data shows a 77.26 percent on-time rate for the past couple of months."
"We also built a voucher system, because of a Silver City request," Simpson said. "People want to buy 10 at a time to lock in a price. We have a notification system when a flight is canceled or delayed. It's not perfect. Right now, we just do email, but we do call, too."
Drye said: "We look at the individual record. We send to the ones who booked with us, because we have their email and phone number. We would like to add text messages soon, too."
Simpson noted the big news for Boutique. "We announced code share with United Airlines interline service. You can fly on Boutique and earn and redeem miles on United."
To a question, he said Boutique owns its aircraft and does not lease them.
Rep. Rodolpho "Rudy" Martinez asked the age of the aircraft.
Simpson said they run from 2000-2007. "Some people believe these are the best Pilatus planes. More than half our fleet are from the 2006-2007-year production. The newer planes have more complicated avionics that pilots don't like as well."
Grant County Airport Manager Rebekah Wenger asked about complaints on schedule changes and questions she has heard addressing why the plane leaves Silver City at 9 a.m. and returns from Phoenix at 2 p.m.
"What are the preferred times?" Simpson asked. "Do people like getting there at 7 a.m. and coming back late in the afternoon? Say 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.?"
Southwest Council of Governments Executive Director Priscilla Lucero suggested Simpson ask Kevin Cook, Community Development manager for Freeport-McMoRan, who was present.
"Leaving here at 7:30 a.m. and returning at 7:30 p.m. was ideal for our people," Cook said. "But we are a small presence on the flights, many times only one out of eight. It is great for management. Many now have opted to drive over the night before a meeting and return to Silver City after the meeting, which might not get them home before midnight and then they have another meeting early the next morning. We can look at the data for numbers of our passengers."
Martinez said for committee meetings in Santa Fe, "we can leave here at 6:30 a.m. and get to Albuquerque, drive to Santa Fe and then after the meeting, drive back to Albuquerque and get the flight at 7:15 p.m. back home. Most of the time those flights are full."
Hotchkiss said the flights were the reason why she developed the Air Shuttle service. "Having Boutique part of the community is awesome."
"(To change schedules) would be harder to do, if we were smaller," Simpson said. Thinking aloud, he said one airplane leaving to Phoenix about the same time as the flight to Albuquerque would be hard to pull off. "What do the pilots do while they are in Phoenix?"
He said that a schedule might get changed because of the three people who complain about the time. "But what about the five people who like it the way it is? You might not hear from them. I'm not saying that's the way it is here, but that's what can happen."
Drye noted that one plane overnights in Silver City.
Simpson said Boutique did have an early flight to Phoenix that then shuttled back and forth to Show Low before returning to Silver City. "We didn't know there was a sticking point on the Phoenix schedule. You need to let us know. Maybe we need more flights to Phoenix. The U.S. Department of Transportation feels Silver City is privileged to have the frequencies it already does."
He said he would like to increase the number of unsubsidized flights, but they would cost $300-$400 one way, "which might not be popular."
Grant County Manager Charlene Webb said she noticed on a slide of data that had been shown that the route between Albuquerque and Silver City had the least favorable on-time rate at 69.44 percent over the past 60 days.
Simpson said it usually happens in Albuquerque, either waiting for fueling or waiting for a plane coming from elsewhere. "It's 79 percent on time Silver City to Albuquerque and 69 percent Albuquerque to Silver City. If we didn't have the Phoenix flight, it would be simpler. We have two different planes and crews to Phoenix and back and to Albuquerque and back. No other company can give you these numbers."
Simpsons noted that the numbers were decent for Silver City and its flights. "Across the system, it was appalling, with an overall 52 percent on time rate. Here it's about 77 percent. If a pilot is running late, he must answer to us why he is running late. I would love 100 percent on time. If things were simple, they might be. It's about 100 percent on time between Pendleton and Portland, Oregon, for the past seven days. They just go back and forth."
Cook said he has heard horror stories out of Phoenix, which had an 8-hour delay.
"Two things," Simpson said. "A big long delay like that is 80 percent to 90 percent of the time mechanical. We have pilots and mechanics, but we have a certain capacity we can handle. I know you don't have three spare planes at SVC (Grant County Airport code). We have a certain amount of parts in Denver and Dallas and can drive them down here FedEx overnight."
Grant County General Services Director Randy Villa said some of the frustration stemmed from when the passengers are told it will be a 30-minute delay, then it's an hour, then two hours."
"That is a problem," Simpson said. "I'm not happy about that. It's not the first time I've heard that. I say it's better to cancel than string the passengers out."
Wenger said: "We need the communication to us about what's going on. I have to be able to communicate to the guys who are trying to fuel the planes."
"We have a group of dispatchers," Simpson said. "Their job is to pass the information to customer service, but sometimes they don't get the communications out. I sent a message to the dispatchers. If there's a delay and they don't know how long it will take I tell them the flight is cancelled and we'll help you get a car. I am working with dispatch for better communication."
Wenger noted that Boutique is spread out all over the country. "Are you planning to expand more?"
Simpson said United would be taking over the flight to Vernal, Utah. "That will free up four aircraft. We are trying to maintain the planes, the pilots and the mechanics. We want to expand enough to maintain staffing without laying off. We aren't going to say that we are never going to expand, because our competitors want in and we need to grow, too. Into our three northern areas, we took up too many planes. That was my mistake. We have bought more planes, and in the last year, we have only added one city. No schedule is perfect for everyone."
To an audience question about Boutique and other airlines, Simpson said through the relationship with United and because United has an interline relationship with Delta, he has seen Delta show up on some tickets that include Boutique.
Drye said if a flight begins with a United flight and ends in Silver City with Boutique, luggage will transfer, whether the flight is through Albuquerque or Phoenix. However, for the return flight from Silver City through Albuquerque or Phoenix, because of no security process in Silver City, the passenger has to claim the luggage, go through security and recheck the bag(s).
Simpson showed several slides of data, including ones with passenger counts for Silver City.
Leigh Reisch of Mimbres asked if the gate in Albuquerque is the same gate as used by previous air service providers.
Drye said: "Yes, it's a gate at the Sunport in the back." She noted that if a person has a small pet they want to transport, it can be put in a soft-sided carrier. "Larger dogs have to sit at your feet."
Lucero said people have some concerns about trying to book in advance for medical appointments. "So far in advance that booking is not yet available."
"You may ask why we don't have more than six months out," Simpson said. "It's because the schedule may have changed flight times by then. Right now, we have a six-month inventory open."
Lucero asked Commissioner Billy Billings to tell his wife's luggage story.
"I wasn't going to talk about this, but my wife was flying from Phoenix back home," Billings said. "She had two suitcases, but was told she could only take one, so she switched her medications into one bag. She arrived in Silver City and the wrong bag had been sent. Someone told her she was being punished for having two bags. I don't know if it was one of your employees."
Simpson and Drye apologized.
Simpson said they might have to discipline someone for speaking to her like that. "Or get rid of them. If we have the information, we will act on it. We try to do right by the customers. I don't want bad customer service. Please give us any feedback on people working for us."
Lucero said she saw a list in the slideshow that pointed out all the contributions that Boutique Air has provided the community. "Many of us weren't aware of how much you have contributed to Silver City and Grant County. I think you had a communications person and she left. I think one that communicates with us would be good."
Cook asked if it were more cost effective to have a plane for Phoenix with no rotation.
"We have 24 round trips a week with three or four a day," Simpson said. "We got interest for a flight to Phoenix, so we made it possible. If we increased flights to Phoenix it might take away from Albuquerque. Without the subsidy, a ticket would cost $300 to $400 a ticket."
Reisch asked if Boutique was publicly traded. No, Simpson replied. He said the company is looking at Telluride as a possible destination that would not be subsidized. "United puts you on the map. With our code share with United, people can find Silver City,"
He noted that even five to 10 years ago, planes with 20-30 passengers were common. The Embraer turbo-prop plane could carry 30. "You don't see them anymore. It's the 50 plus passenger planes and airlines like us with eight or nine passengers. There's a huge gap. It's partly because of the pilot shortage. You have to pay pilots the same for a 20-30 passenger aircraft as for the 50-passenger plane."
"Essential air service is a blessing for the cities that have it, like Silver City," Simpson said. "There is no way now to get into the program. It was a one-time deal, around 1978. And if you get knocked out, you don't get back in. Alamogordo got knocked out, so it has no air service. Yes, we are trying to keep the EAS service here. It is a competitive process. I know those guys (referring to Advanced Air, which had pitched the previous week). It's easy for them to say they can do it. But now it's a different universe for us now because we used to be that size."
He noted: "Uber is developing personal helicopters. That could change air service."
Ben Fisher of the Silver City Daily Press asked what the subsidy was for Silver City. Simpson replied: "I need to check, but I think it's around $3.5 million annually. It's been pretty consistent at that rate for the four years we've been flying here. Any company can ask for $2 million up to $20 million. Most EAS bids are in the $2 million to $3 million range. This is one of the higher ones, because Silver City is an isolated community. We have brought back positive numbers to Silver City. I don't think this airport has ever had such high passenger numbers."
Reisch asked if Boutique carries freight.
"We carried a bunch of newspapers once," Simpson said. Fisher corroborated that Boutique had carried a load of the Daily Press that was published in Santa Fe during the legislative session.
"We are not cleared for bio-hazard cargo," Simpson said.
He noted that Boutique had looked at flights to El Paso. "We will look at it again."
The flights out of Silver City average 60 percent full, so there is capacity available.
Cook noted that Gila Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Taffy Arias had asked about El Paso, because of the possibility of bringing in more physicians on a weekly basis.
Simpson asked to be notified about any changes coming up that need more airplane capacity. Several items were mentioned, but nothing was concrete.