Elite Airways ends its service in Naples
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Commercial airline service in Naples, at least for now, has come to an end.
After a year of low passenger loads, canceled flights and shifting schedules, Elite Airways, the Maine-based carrier that offered the first Naples commercial flights in a decade, ended its service at the end of February.
The airline, which averaged about 15 passengers per flight from March through December, had hoped its loads would increase during peak season. But Elite couldn’t fill more than a third of its seats in January and February.
Airport commissioners, increasingly frustrated that Elite wasn’t providing service to more popular destinations, terminated the airport’s subsidies package in February. By the end of the month, Elite President John Pearsall canceled the rest of his flights.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Chris Rozansky, the airport’s executive director who was hired in February 2016, just a few months after the Elite deal was announced. “I wish it would have been successful.”
Pearsall declined an interview but said in a statement, “Elite Airways has wrapped up its service seasonally and is working on possible future destinations.”
Related:Naples airport could drop subsidies for Elite Airways
If Elite wants to fly again in Naples, it could reapply for the airport's subsidy to waive rental fees, Rozansky said. But the airline would likely have to come back with an offer to service a more popular destination, like White Plains, New York, or the Chicago Midway International Airport, Rozansky said.
Mayor Bill Barnett said competition from Southwest Florida International Airport makes it tougher for smaller airlines to pick niche destinations.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out,” he said. “I’m sorry they couldn’t live up to what they said they would. I think the board did the right thing.”
The airport pays an annual $1 lease to use the city’s land, but it is not publicly funded by tax dollars. The airport had long serviced commercial flights until 2007, when Delta Air Lines, the airport's last commercial carrier, left the city.
The Elite deal was controversial from the start when former airport Executive Director Ted Soliday in October 2015 signed a two-year contract with the airline without first consulting commissioners.
Related:Elite Airways plans more Naples flights, but passenger loads between 20 and 30 percent
Critics said there wasn’t a demand for Elite’s flights to Maine and New Jersey, with some connections in Florida.
Elite, facing competition from airlines in Lee County, later canceled the flights to New Jersey and replaced them with less-popular trips to Long Island, New York.
Some commissioners said Elite had violated its contract to provide service to a major hub while still accepting airport subsidies.
The airport had agreed to pay $50,000 to market Elite’s service and waive rental fees.
In February, Elite had eight departures and seven arrivals in Naples, with a total of 312 passengers. Elite was sending passengers to and from New York and Portland, Maine, with connections in Melbourne, Florida.
At a regular meeting Feb. 16, commissioners said they had had enough.
“Clearly it has not worked,” said Jim Rideoutte, who had supported commercial service. “I don’t know if there’s something there for some other outfit. But what we’ve gotten with Elite is very poor.”
The five-member board voted unanimously to terminate the airport’s subsidies to Elite. The airport sent the airline a bill for roughly $26,000 in back rent.
If Elite wants to reapply for airport incentives, the airline would have to pay its bills first, Rozansky said.
Rozansky said any decision to pursue commercial service from another airline would likely come out of the airport’s upcoming master plan, which would include a market study.
“There are no immediate plans to go out and find a new carrier,” he said.