Airport closes in on carrier

MARTINSBURG – The Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority will recommend that Sun Air take over daily flight service at the airport later this year, using aircraft with seating for eight passengers on three or four daily roundtrip flights to Pittsburgh.

The recommendation will be filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Analysis by June 19, the deadline for commenting on future flight service under the government’s Essential Air Service program.

While the federal government does not have to accept a recommendation, it usually considers and includes such input when making a decision.

Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling, liaison to the airport authority, and Commissioner Ted Beam Jr., who came to Monday night’s airport authority meeting, said they intend to make the same recommendation.

Besides Sun Air of Fort Lauderdale, two other airlines are interested serving the Altoona-Blair County Airport through the EAS program. They are CityLink Air of Jacksonville, Fla., and Boutique Air of San Francisco.

Silver Airways of Fort Lauderdale, which currently serves the airport with a 33-seat aircraft and daily flights to the Washington-Dulles Airport, initially applied to continue service, then withdrew from the competition. In a document filed with the government, Silver said it was unable to reach an agreement with United, on behalf of the Altoona-Blair County Airport, permitting the continued use of United’s baggage and ticketing systems.

Silver is expected to keep serving the airport under its current contract, valid through July 31, which includes a clause requiring continued service until a replacement carrier is ready to take over.

Airport Authority Chairman Tom Hite, during Monday night’s authority meeting, said that Sun Air’s proposed schedule, reliability and low ticket prices were factors in its favor. In its proposal to the federal government, the company said one-way fares would range from $29 to $59.

Airport Manager Tim Hite said that if Sun Air gets the EAS contract, it is willing to hire the ground crew at the airport. That crew is currently employed by an agency that Silver brought in two years ago after winning the airport’s EAS contract.

Tim Hite also said his research indicated that Sun Air has a reputation for paying its bills on time and that its personnel are reachable by telephone. Silver is typically behind in payments due to the authority, according to the manager.

One of the reasons for recommending Sun Air over the other airlines is its ongoing operations at other airports and its interline connection in place for baggage transfers, airport authority member Gary Orner.

CityLink Air currently offers no flight service while Boutique Air started in January to provide flight service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Boutique also suggested providing the Altoona-Blair County Airport, through the EAS program, with flights to both Pittsburgh and the Washington-Dulles airport.

Tom Hite said he thinks that Sun Air’s proposal with flights only to Pittsburgh will give the airport its best chance of rebuilding ridership while supporting the local and the state economies.

Flying from one Pennsylvania airport to another is going to be good business for the state, Tom Hite said.

Sun Air has projected that it will need $2.34 million annually in subsidy to serve the Altoona-Blair County Airport. Its proposal also asks the government for a four-year contract.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.