Boutique Air was started in 2007 here in San Francisco by Shawn Simpson, an ex-Google employee. After initially serving charter contracts, the airline has been finding a way to grow, serving cities under the Essential Air Service program. The EAS is worth $263 million and is paid for by the federal government. Most cities would not have an airline connection without it and get $3 million to have an airline serve them.
As does the city of Merced, which awarded Boutique Air their flights to Oakland (OAK) and Los Angeles (LAX).
Why does it matter? Well, keep in mind that Boutique Air is basically paid for by the city government and NOT by passengers. Boutique Air (the sole commercial operator at Merced Airport) has two daily flights to both airports and serves 32 passengers per airport (two flights return) or 64 in total.
That is 233,600 seats in total for this route annually. Since the city of Merced gets about $3,000,000 from the federal government, it translates into $100 per departure per seat!
Keep in mind that the flights are just 100-200 miles long. The airline really does not need to sell any seats but requires passengers or the subsidies go away. So what do they do? They make the fares low – in fact, I paid just $19 for the one-way to Merced and that included the fee for the OTA (Orbitz).
I showed up at 10 AM at Oakland Airport and check-in was deserted.
I called the number left there and a friendly agent showed up in seconds. A few minutes later and I was checked in, my Known Traveler Number was added and I had a TSA Pre-eligible boarding pass in my hands. Security was a breeze and I had a great time at the Escape Lounge at Oakland Airport.
Boutique Air operates a fleet of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft and while it looked especially dirty, it also looked like an angry locust amidst all the 737s at Oakland Airport.
30 minutes before departure we (just the eight of us!) were walked downstairs and the first officer greeted us and gave us a security briefing after getting seated.
The interior has a low ceiling (so getting onto the plane is more a crawl than a walk) but the seats are big and swivel by 20 degrees.
Your luggage is stored right behind you. The company transports your checked-in luggage for free but does not guarantee it can fit on your plane (it may come on the next flight or after).
The first officer seemed friendly though bored out of his mind after the security briefing. It all took just 5 minutes and then we were racing toward the runway 15 minutes before our scheduled departure time.
There was barely any take-off roll and off we went into the sunny and bumpy East Bay skies. After some slow turning, we settled into a southeastern path. These short flights don’t go beyond 9,000 feet in altitude and you are MUCH closer to the ground, especially going over the hills. I loved the sightseeing opportunity.
The flight was uneventful. About 30 minutes later, we made a sharp turn at under 1,000 feet and landed perfectly on the spot in Merced. Merced Airport is basically just a garage that has been moved up to be TSA-compliant, all just for that one Boutique Air service. It duly seems improvised, especially the security check.
I had planned to be in Merced for four hours, to explore the surrounding area a bit. I had already checked in for my 5 PM return flight.
At 4.30 PM, I arrived back at the airport from the city and nobody was to be seen – there were no planes and no ground staff. However, the TSA staff eventually showed up. I thought that was a good sign until it was close to my scheduled departure time and my flight got canceled. I called the local number of the ground staff but they had shut off their phones for good. Apparently, the plane had gone mechanical already on the Merced to Los Angeles leg.
I called the Boutique Air hotline to get a rebooking and suggestion for a hotel. I find it mesmerizing that airlines in the US don’t have to pay a cent when (due to their fault) they delay you by hours/days/weeks. But as a passenger, you lose your whole ticket if you are not at the departure gate 10 minutes before departure. Talk about an asymmetric option in their favor!!
However, a duty of care (meals and accommodation for an overnight) is typically accepted as a liability that falls onto airlines.
I explained the situation and the Boutique Air hotline agent would not have any of it. The plane going mechanical wasn’t her fault (well, yes, but her company’s duty is to have planes available) and she refused any rebooking or requests for refunds. I explained that Orbitz’ responsibility ends when irregular operations end – in fact, I expected her to rebook me on United from a nearby airport. I requested to speak to her supervisor and then the connection dropped. I could have played that game longer but the car rental station closes at 6 PM (I only had 30 minutes left) and the drive to San Francisco is just about 2.5 hours.
During all of this, nobody contacted me (though the airline had my email and phone number). The flight also disappeared from FlightAware; it did not show as canceled, it was just taken off the GDS.
Given how good my experience was with the outbound flight, I’d have given my thumbs up but the sheer incompetent handling of this IRROPS is striking. However, if you think about the airline’s business model, it becomes easier to understand. The airline is essentially paid for by the federal government, administered by the city of Merced. It really does not care much about passengers, since they only get a small fraction of their revenue from passengers. You could call it a ‘legal scam’.
Even a week later and I’m still ‘waiting’ for my rebooking (I drove back last week, though, of course). I have traveled the world but no airline has ever left me stranded without any communication. I’m still perplexed by the agent’s complete refusal to do anything about a rebooking or a refund.
In essence, never count on Boutique Air – the company cares even less about you than an ultra-LCC and is ready to abandon you and your travels plans at a moment’s notice. They are cheap and a decent airline but make sure you have a secure backup plan – what a disaster this airline is.