Direct Air, which offers the only scheduled service out of Worcester Regional Airport, abruptly canceled all of its flights through May 15, leaving the airport without commercial flights for the third time in nine years.
“This decision was made to address operational matters,’’ the airline said in a statement. “We are currently evaluating strategic alternatives.’’
Direct Air, a charter airline that sells tickets to the public, does not operate its own planes, but contracts with other carriers to handle its flights. Two of those companies told the Department of Transportation that they were cutting off service because they had not been paid.
Direct Air told the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the company is based, that flights were suspended as of Monday night because of a missed fuel payment. Direct Air could not be reached for further comment.
The airline, which has been dogged by mechanical problems, scheduling issues with leased planes, and passenger complaints, flies to 17 destinations. From Worcester, it serves Punta Gorda, Fla. (near Fort Myers), Sanford, Fla. (near Orlando), West Palm Beach, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“Massport is very disappointed with Direct Air’s announcement,’’ said Richard Walsh, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs the Worcester airport.
The airport has had a spotty history of commercial flights in recent years. In 2001, the airport had four carriers: Delta Connection, American Eagle, US Airways Express, and Pan American. Since the last of those airlines left in 2003, there have been several gaps in service. When Direct Air started flying out of Worcester in November 2008, it was the first regular commercial service since Allegiant stopped flying from there two years earlier.
Passenger traffic in Worcester peaked in 1989 at 354,000. Last year, 107,434 passengers flew in and out of Worcester on Direct Air, with flights 80 percent full, on average.
Direct Air left passengers stranded at several airports Monday night. Jocelyn Floyd, 43, of Decatur, Ill., and her two children were stuck with about 150 other passengers at the Springfield, Ill., airport, when their 4:30 p.m. flight to Lakeland, Fla., was canceled two hours after it was scheduled to take off.
The Direct Air employees at the airport had no idea what was going on, she said. “They were just as frustrated as we were,’’ she said.
After trying to get through to the airline 30 times Monday night and then getting hung up on by an agent, Floyd finally got through on Tuesday, only to be told that just $532 of the $676 she paid would be refunded. Public charter airlines operate under different rules than commercial airlines, which can make it more difficult for passengers to get refunds or reschedule flights.
No passengers were stranded in Worcester Monday, where the airline flies on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Massport has established a customer service line (508-799-1741) and e-mail account (DirectAirinquiries@massport.com) to help Worcester-area passengers affected by the service suspension.
Massport has been seeking other carriers to fly out of Worcester and said it will continue to do so. “There is demand for service,’’ Walsh said.
But it has not been easy attracting airlines to the debt-ridden airport, with outdated hangars and a landing system that does not allow planes to land in the lowest levels of visibility - a frequent problem at the often-foggy facility.
The airport’s inaccessibility has been a major factor in keeping it from thriving. It is several miles from the interstate, requiring passengers to navigate five miles of city streets to get there. Proposals to expand roads and improve access have been blocked by neighbors.
The changing industrial makeup of the city has also affected the airport. Several large companies that used to send passengers to the airport have shrunk or left Worcester, said Roberta Schaefer, president of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, which has conducted several studies of the airport.
And with four larger airports within about an hour’s drive - in Boston, Windsor Locks, Conn., Manchester, N.H., and Warwick, R.I. - some aviation analysts don’t see Worcester as a viable airport for scheduled service.
“The prospects for sustainable commercial air service in Worcester are really small,’’ said Daniel Kasper, a Boston aviation consultant at the economic litigation firm Compass Lexecon.
His recommendation? Take the money Massport is using to fund the Worcester airport and subsidize a ground shuttle to Logan International in Boston.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.