Airlines offering subsidy options for county airport

MARTINSBURG – The four airlines interested in providing passenger service at the Altoona-Blair County Airport are offering options in need of subsidy ranging from $1.55 million to $2.38 million.

And while the subsidy amount is not one of the four carrier-selection criteria listed in the statues governing the Essential Air Service program, the U.S. Transportation department admits that subsidy is a factor.

“We may consider the relative subsidy requirements of the various options, and we have since the inception of the program,” the government states on the EAS program’s website.

The four factors named in the statues are: service reliability; contractual and marketing arrangements with a larger carrier at a hub airport; interline ticketing arrangements with a larger carrier at a hub airport; and community views.

Two years ago, when the Altoona-Blair County Airport needed a carrier to provide daily passenger flights subsidized by the EAS program, Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the only applicant. The company sought to replace Colgan Air because Colgan’s owner, Pinnacle Airlines, was experiencing financial problems and wanted to stop serving the Altoona-Blair County Airport and the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.

With no competitors, it was no surprise when the government awarded the contract to Silver, which asked for $3.99 million annually to serve both airports. With that contract set to end July 31, the process has started again to name a carrier to serve the airports as of Aug. 1.

While Silver remains interested in serving both airports, its proposal is part of a package deal with seven additional regional airports in West Virginia and Virginia.

The company wants $23.6 million to serve the group but lists the Altoona-Blair County Airport’s subsidy at $1.55 million, making it the cheapest option within the four proposals submitted.

But Silver’s option also reduces the Altoona-Blair County Airport’s weekday flights from three to two, something that isn’t likely to sit well with members of the airport authority who have long been interested in efforts that will build ridership.

Airport authority member Marty Marasco said Friday that with his limited review of the four proposals, he has yet to see a deciding factor that identifies a preferred carrier or option.

But the airport authority is expected to offer a recommendation on or before May 28, the deadline set by the Essential Air Service office, which will forward a recommendation to the assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs.

In light of that task, Marasco said he is asking others for their opinions on flight service. Also, airport manager Tim Hite is working on a summary and an evaluation of the proposals, Marasco said.

Hite was not available Friday for comment but, like members of the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority, Hite has been critical of Silver for too many canceled flights because of scheduling problems, lack of pilots and weather.

Silver has drawn complaints for similar reasons in other locations. After Silver posted a notice in April about its decision to stop providing flights to the Muscle Shoals Regional Airport in Alabama, airport leaders there were nonchalant and described it as a blessing in disguise.

Even though Silver proposes to continue flying 34-seat aircraft between the Altoona-Blair County and the Washington-Dulles airport, Marasco said he thinks the authority must consider other options.

“Otherwise, I’m afraid that we would continue to get the same treatment as before,” he said.

While Sun Air of Fort Lauderdale suggested use of an eight-passenger aircraft between the Altoona-Blair County and the Pittsburgh airports, it also proposed five roundtrip flights every weekday and two roundtrip flights every Saturday and Sunday. The cost was $2.38 million in subsidy.

City Link Air of Jacksonville, Fla., asked for $2.2 million to maintain three daily flights to Pittsburgh, initially with a nine-seat aircraft and later with a 19-seat aircraft.

Boutique Air of San Francisco asked for $2.2 million in subsidy to cover the cost of 24 round-trip flights a week, divided evenly between the Washington-Dulles and Pittsburgh airports, on nine-seat aircraft.

Boutique also suggested a cheaper option, at $1.64 million, if all 24 flights go to Pittsburgh.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.