US gov’t seeking passenger contract at Altoona-Blair County Airport

MARTINSBURG – The government contract that supports daily passenger service at the Altoona-Blair County Airport is up for grabs again.

But this time, the U.S. Department of Transportation is asking the airport and potential applicants for the Essential Air Service contract to address how they could reduce the need for subsidy of $255 per passenger to less than $200 per passenger.

If that’s not possible, the Altoona-Blair County Airport might be without daily passenger service later this year because the transportation department said it is prohibited from subsidizing air service at a community where the subsidy per passenger exceeds $200.

“Rather than terminate the [Altoona] community’s eligibility at this stage, the Department will solicit proposals for EAS and evaluate all proposals submitted before either committing to a two-year contract or making a final determination on Altoona’s continuing eligibility,” the government online posting states.

Silver Airways, the Fort Lauderdale company that currently serves the airport, with daily flights to the Washington-Dulles airport, will apply for the EAS contract and is working on a strategy to reduce the subsidy, said Travis Christ, Silver’s chief commercial officer. He said he was not surprised by the government’s request.

“It’s not unusual if you look at what’s happening with the EAS program,” Christ said.

“Congress mandated that program spend less money and over the last year, there have been a number of airports that have lost their service.”

The airport’s current contract, which remains valid through July 31, provides Silver with $3.99 million in subsidy so it could serve the Altoona and the John P. Murtha Johnstown Cambria County airports with 18 weekly non-stop and one-stop flights to the Washington-Dulles airport.

Airlines interested in providing service after July 1 are required to submit proposals through March 11. All proposals will be posted online and available for public review and comments.

Christ said Silver is committed to passenger service at the Altoona and Johnstown airports and remains “very happy with the market.”

But airport leaders, who have watched passenger numbers decline, have been critical of Silver for a lack of reliability with providing flights and its lack of promotional advertising.

The key to reducing subsidy has always been higher ridership, and the way to accomplish that is with lower fares and to advertise them, Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority Vice Chairman Gary Orner said.

Christ said his company is advertising through online resources.

“It’s almost exclusively digital,” he said. “If someone pulls up a flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, they may get a notice about flying out of Altoona.”

Orner has long advocated the need for an advertising campaign that promotes the airport, its free parking, competitive fares and short security lines. A few years ago with the use of a state grant, Orner assisted with a local advertising campaign on behalf of the airport.

“It’s tricky because we have to be very economical,” Christ said. “Large visible programs for small airports with small aircrafts are expensive. Ideally, we’d like to have a blimp flying over the county.”

Orner maintains that low-cost walk-up fares will bring in more passengers.

“We should be able to fly people down to Dulles, one way, for $100,” Orner said. “Once an airplane is in the air, if it’s only 20 percent full, then you recoup only 20 percent of your expenses. The other 80 percent is never going to be recouped.”

Local airport leaders at Altoona and Johnstown were also critical of Silver’s decision in November to eliminate the weekday early morning departure and late night arrival flights. That cuts their business passengers who can no longer spend a day in Washington, D.C., without the expense of an overnight stay, they said.

Christ said the flight schedule changes were part of an effort to address staffing and aircraft maintenance issues, and as a result, the flight schedule has become more reliable.

“Flight delays for maintenance and cancellations are way down,” Christ said. “What we’re dealing with now is a lack of pilots, but that’s not uncommon. Nationwide, there’s a serious shortage of young pilots.”

The government, in its posting, noted that the Altoona-Blair County Airport, for the last quarter of 2012 and the first three quarters of 2013, had 3,680 boarding passengers or an average of 13 per day. The airport also had 4,150 arriving passengers during that time. Combining those numbers to come up with 7,830 passengers, the government calculated a $255 per passenger subsidy, based on a $1.99 million EAS allocation.