Lancaster, Altoona-Blair airports share similar plan

MARTINSBURG – An eastern Pennsylvania airport using nine-seat aircraft since March 2009 has gone through ups and downs for more than a year because of service and reliability, not the size of the aircraft, according to its manager.

“There’s always some people who say that if it doesn’t have a jet engine, they’re not getting on it,” Lancaster Airport Manager David Eberly said.

Now that Lancaster Airport is offering reliable flights and good passenger service, Eberly said he is trying to convince people to again use the airport.

That same kind of scenario could play out at the Altoona-Blair County Airport, where the federal Essential Air Service contract is up for grabs this year.

Four airlines, including the current provider, Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have asked for the subsidized passenger route. The others are: Sun Air Express of Fort Lauderdale, Boutique Air of San Francisco and City Link Air of Jacksonville, Fla.

Because Silver’s reliability and passenger service have allegedly been poor, the airport authority is studying the options offered by the other three carriers, even though each proposed the use of an eight-or-nine-seat aircraft. Silver flies a 33-seat Saab.

Late last week, the federal Office of Aviation Analysis announced that two of the four airlines had contacted its office and proposed revisions to their proposals. The office did not identify which carriers made the request or the type of change requested. But all airlines were given the chance, until May 28, to

submit revisions.

Meanwhile, the idea of a forthcoming change in passenger service at the Altoona-Blair County Airport has started to draw public comment.

Ed Stern, vice president of Canary Labs, which is located about a mile from the airport, said he, his employees and his family have been using the Altoona-Blair County Airport a lot less frequently. He said the flights from Washington-Dulles to Altoona have been unreliable, leaving potential passengers stranded until the next day.

“When the service gets better, I will start using the Altoona-Blair County Airport regularly,” Stern said. “Until then, I will continue my drive to other airports for direct flights.”

Altoona resident Richard Slutzker also stressed the importance of a “committed and dedicated carrier … who is willing to fill the planes on a frequent basis, willing to advertise and [willing to be] aggressively committed to expanding both in terms of the number of flights as well as the number of destinations.”

The carriers proposing to use eight- or nine-seat aircraft at the Altoona-Blair County Airport say they’ll make multiple daily flights. While Sun Air and City Link proposed roundtrip flights only to Pittsburgh, Boutique proposed flights to Pittsburgh and to the Washington-Dulles airport.

Eberly said that Sun Air began serving Lancaster Airport in November 2012, providing daily flights to the Washington-Dulles Airport.

“They were just beginning at that time, trying to get their act together,” Eberly said. “They brought in new airplanes but had no heat, no de-icing systems, no foul-weather plans, so every time we had bad weather or snow, they were grounded.”

After about a year of difficulties, Eberly said things began to change, but rebuilding passenger numbers remains difficult. The count is at 6.4 per day for the airport providing five daily flights, via nine-seat aircraft, to the Washington-Dulles Airport.

“Sun Air is doing a great job, and it’s been that way for the last four to five months,” Eberly said. “But if you go to a restaurant and get a bad meal, how soon do you go back?”

Representatives for Sun Air, Boutique and City Link have pledged to support the Altoona-Blair County Airport’s desire to rebuild passenger numbers, which have fallen to 9.8 per day. They say they can do that with frequent reliable flights and lower fares.

Information offered to the airport authority by Jeffrey Hartz, an airline management consultant working on the PIT Connector project aiming to link regional airports with the Pittsburgh airport, indicates that it has happened elsewhere.

After Cape Air began providing five small airports in Missouri and Illinois with multiple daily flights on a nine-seat aircraft to the St. Louis airport, each saw daily passenger number increase.

Each now has at least 13 passengers a day, based on 2013 figures that Hartz provided. Eberly said he believes the Lancaster Airport will be able to rebuild its passenger numbers over time and that the nine-seat aircraft will do the job.

“Everyone wants a bigger aircraft, but is that realistic?” he said.

The cost of flying a nine-seater is about $600 per hour, he said, compared with the cost of flying a 19-seat aircraft at $1,800 an hour or the 33-seat Saab at about $2,200 per hour.

“If small communities want air service, they’ve got to get the right size aircraft for the job,” Eberly said.