The Block Island Times

Editorial: Hey RIAC! Why offer $1.15M to an out-of-state company?

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Jul 19, 2012

On the face of it, scheduled air service between Block Island and T.F. Green sounds like a great idea. Many of us have friends or family members coming from afar who struggle with the logistics of getting here. Many of us also long to reach the capital more easily.

That's why the Rhode Island Airport Corporation's application for $900,000 in federal funds for seasonal flights seems, at first glance, like a no brainer. For $60 each way, the island would be linked to the Warwick airport, with its train station to Providence and ever-expanding flight options around the country. And in the winter, when demand is low, the plane would fly Puerto Rico to Culebra, ensuring wintertime revenue to keep the service alive. What a neat solution.

But a look at the grant application raises some questions. Why is RIAC making a joint application with the Puerto Rican Tourism Company — when the Block Island Tourism Council, or any other local body, was never asked for its opinion? Is one-click accessibility on travel websites, and the expanded tourism that will come with it, what Block Island really wants? And why, more than anything else, is RIAC sponsoring Cape Air, a company that started in Massachusetts and now flies all over the globe, over homegrown New England Airlines?

True, Westerly and Block Island's New England Airlines doesn't have the agreements in place with bigger airlines that Cape Air does. It could pursue them, if given time. But time is exactly what the company didn't get. RIAC — a state entity — gave this homestate company a matter of weeks to respond to its application, while it's been talking about the idea with Cape Air for years.

Cape Air, it's interesting to note, is well connected; founder and CEO Dan Wolf is a state senator in Massachusetts.

In the grant application, which is available online, RIAC says New England Airlines isn't interested in pursuing scheduled service. That's not true; just ask company owner Bill Bendokas.

Despite Cape Air's protestations, the new service appears certain to cut into New England Airlines profits, which are not grand to begin with. AirFlamenco in Culebra is apparently facing the same problem. Interstate Navigation faced a similar situation a few years ago, when an upstart company started the high-speed ferry. Its solution? It bought the service that was otherwise skimming off its summer profits. With state and federal funds backing Cape Air, it's hard to imagine that scenario repeating in this case.

Why not give the $900,000 in federal funds, and another $250,000 in state support, to our homestate company, instead? Why not encourage the local airline to fly high? The jobs and money this service would bring should stay with a Rhode Island company. Bendokas and his crew already know how to handle the tricky island landing strip, already know how to service the Islander airplanes that Cape Air would have to buy to fly here. And Lois and Bill are here for us, year round, when we're sick, when we need medications, when the ferry's not running, when time is of the essence, and when we simply want some Chinese food flown over. They're a lifeline service, and we need them.

There are still a few more days to comment on the federal bid process. Follow this link to let the federal Department of Transportation know what you think. Convenience is great, but not at any cost. Whatever happens, Block Islanders should be doing their best to make sure the airline we've relied on for 42 years doesn't get hurt.

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