Appalachian Air getting off the ground?

The plane expected to be used by Appalachian Air to provide commercial round-trip flights between Pikeville and Nashville daily is parked outside the airport during an event in November. While the project didn’t get off the ground on its expected April start date, officials now say a significant hurdle has been cleared and the project can now get underway.

When the commercial air service proposed to be stationed at the Pikeville-Pike County Airport stalled prior to its April start date, many expressed skepticism over whether the service would ever get off the ground.

However, on Monday, the Pikeville City Commission was told by consultant Luke Schmidt that the project has cleared another hurdle and can begin working toward operation.

During the commission’s regular meeting work session, Schmidt addressed the board on the status of the service, named Appalachian Air, and said the project can now get moving forward.

While getting $1.5 million in funding to provide a subsidy for the airline and finding an airline, Corporate Flight Management, and supporting company, Public Charters, to provide the service was taken care of early in the process, the project was stopped dead prior to its expected April 14 launch date.

The hangup, according to Schmidt, was the most significant hurdle the project had to overcome. Just prior to the flights being launched, the airport was informed that because it was not certified under a particular portion of federal aviation law, the service could not begin.

Schmidt said those working on the project had been informed last fall that the certification wouldn’t be needed, and the Federal Aviation Administration had been asked if it was needed, but didn’t answer until February.

At that time, he said, some within the agency said the certification was needed, but not all agreed.

“There were conflicting views within the agency as to whether we should or shouldn’t have to do it,” he said. “We just could not come to an agreement between all of us as to what needed to be done or what didn’t have to be done.”

That, he said, stopped the project dead in its tracks.

“That brought to a halt things such as finalizing our small community air service development grant,” he said. “It brought to a halt having (the Transportation Security Administration’s) plan in place so that we would have screening at the Pikeville airport prior to departure for the passengers ... We really hit a wall.”

The City of Pikeville hired legal counsel in Washington, D.C., Schmidt said, and the counsel informed officials early this month that the agencies involved had decided that the certification was not necessary for the service to begin as proposed.

“Now we can all move forward with a quite of bit of confidence that we’re in a good, good spot,” he said.

The TSA, he said, still has to approve the airport’s plan and also the security plan.

“We’re hoping that approval will be forthcoming within a month,” he said.

Because the TSA still has to approve the plans, he said, it is not known when Appalachian Air will take off.

“We will not announce a service launch date until we’re all 110 percent sure we can meet the date,” he said. “Because what we don’t want is another delay, another postponement. And a lot of that’s going to be dependent on how quickly TSA moves on that.”

Pikeville City Manager Donovan Blackburn said during the meeting that he asks the community bear with city officials as this project gets underway.

“I know everybody’s impatient,” he said. “The community wants to see this service. Nobody wants to see it more than (the commission). We’re over a lot of the hurdles and moving forward.”

He also said that he hopes that critics can now get behind the project.

“We hope that now, everybody, even the naysayers, are now on board now that obstacle has been cleared,” he said.

Commissioner Jerry Keith Coleman pointed out during the discussion that the subsidy the project has built up has not been spent.

“That $1.5 million isn’t gone on a gamble or what they perceive as a gamble,” he said. “That’s not what has taken place here.”

Mayor Frank Justice said during the meeting that he appreciates the effort officials have put forth, especially since this is the one chance for the community to get air service.

“If you all hadn’t been bulldogging like you have, this project probably would have died,” he said.

Schmidt reiterated during the meeting that despite what critics have said of the air service, it will get started.

“In spite of what a handful of folks have said, this service will launch, it will operate and it’s going to be a service that’s going to put this community on the map even more than it is now,” he said.