U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin announced Friday that the Department of Transportation will begin soliciting proposals from air carriers interested in providing service to the Quincy and Marion/Herrin airports.
The request for proposals includes flights to Chicago O'Hare, which Quincy officials hope to see re-established.
"It's great news for all of us in this area, real good news for the consumer," Mayor John Spring said. "I've felt we needed to get back into that Chicago market, which by no means means we're retreating back from St. Louis, which is working very well for us. But the business community wanted this Chicago arrangement back to O'Hare. We need to try to provide that if we can."
Spring said the proposals also will offer a longer service period, likely four years instead of the current two years, and provide greater opportunities for the successful carrier -- whether current carrier Cape Air or another service provider.
"We've learned it's difficult for companies to bid on programs when they know there's only two years of contract. It's hard to go out and expand their fleets when they don't know the length of their stay," Spring said. "This opens up some real good opportunities for Cape and other providers if they desire to bid on this and make things better for the business community and the passenger community."
Spring lauded the service provided by Cape Air, which was awarded the Essential Air Service contracts in Quincy and Marion/Herrin in October 2009 and saw dramatic increases in ridership.
"Cape Air has done a magnificent job bringing our air service back in Quincy. Everybody who used the service is aware of how well it has gone the last year," Spring said. "I'm hoping they will put in a good RFP, but there may be others look at the service now, realizing our count is up tremendously. When you look at our numbers it's just amazing what we've been able to do once we got consistent service, dependable, at a reasonable cost."
Cape Air had a record month in October and far exceeded expectations in its first year of providing commuter air service between Quincy Regional Airport and St. Louis. The airline carried 7,027 passengers through Oct. 31, about double initial projections.
"The success of Cape Air's service at Quincy and Marion/Herrin over the last year has led the Department of Transportation to explore a longer commitment to these downstate communities," Durbin said in a news release.
"A new contract will bring more stability and predictability to the service, which will create an opportunity to bring permanent jobs and new routes to the area. It also shows that the Department of Transportation remains committed to providing these communities with safe, reliable and cost-effective air service."
Spring credited Durbin's assistance with providing air service to Quincy.
"He helped us a great deal to find a carrier that would provide service to our community," Spring said.
Cape Air operates nine-seat Cessna 402 aircraft, making six round-trip flights between Quincy and St. Louis on weekdays. The large number of daily flights has made connections with other airlines easier than in the past when there were fewer flights under other airlines -- and they are offered at a lower cost to passengers.
The airline also obtained a code-share agreement with American Airlines, something that former carrier Great Lakes failed to do. A code-share agreement provides a smoother connection for passengers transferring between Cape Air and American flights. Cape Air also has moved to concourse C at Lambert International Airport, putting passengers within easy walking distance of most connecting flights.
Spring plans to continue talks with Cape Air on the possibility of landing a maintenance facility.
"It would be (good news), but I don't want to get people's hopes up," Spring said.
Cape Air's contract with the Department of Transportation is scheduled to expire on Nov. 30, 2011, and moving forward now to seek RFPs for a longer contract "is very promising," Spring said.