It may be hard to think of Block Island as a jumping off point for anything more distant than Point Judith, if you’re taking the ferry; or Westerly, if you caught a New England Airlines flight from the island’s quaint airport with a 2,500-foot runway.
That could all change, given the vision of Cape Air.
That company is a partner with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the Puerto Rican Tourism Company in applying for a $900,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant. Should the consortium win the grant, it would provide a “safety net” for the new venture; where Cape Air would provide service to Block Island six months of the year and six months to the island of Culebra off the coast of Puerto Rico, according to the airline’s vice president of planning, Andrew Bonney.
Bonney explained that the business plan shows the island services as being profitable. The grant would guarantee a certain level of return for the first two years, so that the company is more willing to take the risk. He said that without the grant, the airline is still interested in making the Block Island connection, although it would not likely be as soon.
With a fleet of 67 Cessna 402s, with a capacity of nine passengers each, and 24 ATRs with 42 seats, Cape Air serves 40 destinations. It is mostly known here for its service from Green to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The airline’s niche, says Bonney, is to link remote areas to the global travel network. Should that happen with Block Island, people flying in or out could book all legs of a trip with a single order and just check their luggage once at the airport for their final destination.
Cape Air needs more than the grant, however, to bring the service to Block Island and Culebra.
Bonney said the company wants to acquire five to 10 Britten-Norman Islanders; 9-passenger aircraft designed to operate on short runways. The new planes cost $1.1 million and up, depending on options. They are the planes used by New England Airlines now. Bonney said Cape Air respects the service New England provides and looks to work with the company. He talked of offering the same kind of access Cape has to the global travel network to New England under some form of partnership.
Patti Goldstein, RIAC vice president of marketing, said New England was contacted concerning the grant but did not pursue an application. Goldstein stressed that the object of the service is not to bring more people to the island, but to provide it a link to Green and the connections it offers.
“This would not be bringing in additional people, hotels already booked,” said Goldstein. “It’s an additional way of accessing [the island].” Goldstein said the connection with Green would also help Block Island hotels and businesses during the “shoulder season” to summer when “the island is jam-packed.”
Bonney said Cape Air is looking to acquire the Britten-Norman Islanders because of their safety record and ability to operate on short runways. He said Cape Air would not use any of its existing fleet to service Block Island.
Should RIAC win the grant, Goldstein said about $600,000 would be earmarked to get the service up and running, with the remaining $300,000 set aside for the second year. She said there are about 60 other applicants for DOT grants and that it is a competitive process. The deadline for letters to support or oppose the grant was last Friday.