Airlines suggest smaller aircraft for Altoona-Blair County Airport

MARTINSBURG – Representatives of two airlines interested in providing passenger service at the Altoona-Blair County Airport said they can increase ridership by providing more frequent flights with smaller aircraft.

That could be an important factor in a forthcoming recommendation because the airport’s daily passenger number has fallen to 9.8 per day.

If it doesn’t return to at least 10 passengers per day, Manager Tim Hite said the airport will be in danger, probably at the end of the year, of being excluded from the government’s Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes passenger flights.

The EAS program, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is currently seeking public comment on proposals offered by four airlines interested in a subsidy so they can provide passenger service at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, starting on or after Aug. 1.

Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale holds the current contract valid through July 31. It is interested in a new contract along with three additional airlines: Boutique Air of San Francisco, Sun Air Express of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and City Link Air of Jacksonville, Fla.

While Silver flies a 34-seat aircraft, the other airlines are proposing to use eight- or nine-seat aircraft to make multiple daily flights from Martinsburg to the Pittsburgh and/or Washington-Dulles airports.

The authority is expected to settle on a recommendation when it meets at 5 p.m. May 21 at the Devorris Center for Business Development in Altoona. The authority’s input, in addition to any public input, must be filed on or

before May 28 with

the transportation depart-ment.

“In the EAS markets, it is all about getting people on the planes,” project manager Daniel Helland of Boutique Air told the authority at its Monday night meeting.

Boutique proposes the use of a nine-seat, single-engine Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that will offer up to 36 round-trip flights per week to Pittsburgh or split between the Pittsburgh and Washington-Dulles airports. Helland told the authority that ticket prices will average $59 but that he, like the authority, is interested in building ridership.

“If we need to cut the fare down to get people on the plane, we will,” Helland said.

Sun Air Express Chief Executive Officer David Hackett also told the authority that frequently flights via his company’s twin-engine Piper Chieftain could make as many as four round trips a day

between Martinsburg

and Pittsburgh.

“Frequency and better prices: That’s a recipe that’s going to rebuild your enplanements,” Hackett said.

Authority Vice Chairman Gary Orner asked about passenger reaction to the use of a smaller aircraft at an airport used to a larger aircraft.

“You’re going to lose some passengers with the smaller aircraft,” Hackett said. “But convenience, lower ticket prices and reliability will attract others. … It’s like

a scale you’ve got to balance.”

Authority members also asked about plans if a pilot or an aircraft isn’t available to fly. Both said they will have back-up personnel and aircraft.

Airport authority members in recent months have been critical of Silver Airways for canceling flights and poor responses in dealing with affected passengers. Silver personnel have promised improvements and put some of the blame on a nationwide pilot shortage.

In its request for proposals, the government asked companies to address the Altoona-Blair County Airport’s subsidy level, which exceeds $200 per passenger. Silver proposed to address that by cutting weekday flights from three to two.

The other airlines said that, with the use of smaller aircraft and more passengers, they can keep the subsidy at less than $200 per passenger.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.