Passenger numbers up at Altoona-Blair airport

Flights to BWI drawing interest

MARTINSBURG — Altoona-Blair County Airport leaders say they are encouraged by the passenger numbers since mid-November’s introduction of flights to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

While January and February are traditionally months when passenger numbers drop and flights are canceled because of weather, leaders say they are seeing improvements that should continue.

In January, the airport served an average of 12 passengers per day, and in February, it averaged 13 per day.

That was an improvement over January and February 2016 numbers, when passenger numbers averaged 10 and 7 per day respectively.

And it was a bigger improvement in comparison to 2015, when January and February passenger numbers came in at 6 and 4 per day respectively.

The percentage of completed flights and the passenger numbers should continue climbing, airport Manager Tracy Plessinger recently told the airport authority.

“The interest in the BWI flights remains good,” Plessinger said. “And once the winter weather is over, the numbers always climb.”

That was the case a year ago, when March 2016 numbers went up to 14 per day. And it happened in March 2015, when passenger numbers increased to 12 per day.

But the month in 2016 that attracted the most passengers was September, when the airport had an average 21 passengers per day, with 98 percent of all flights completed.

Airport authority members acknowledged the lower passenger numbers in January and February but showed no sign of discouragement.

They were among those who welcomed the introduction of BWI flights last year, a move that split the airport’s four daily weekday flights between the BWI and Pittsburgh airports.

Airport authority Vice Chairman Tom Hite said he recently flew into the county airport from Pittsburgh with a woman who had started her trip in Dallas, Texas.

“She was heading to Europe and using Altoona as a connecting airport between Pittsburgh and Baltimore … all on a $400 ticket,” Hite said.

One-way tickets for flights to and from the Altoona-Blair County are $29 if booked at least two weeks in advance. Otherwise, they could be as high as $59.

One reason a growth in passenger numbers is important this year is that the airport currently holds a U.S. Department of Transportation waiver to retain a federal subsidy, provided through the Essential Air Service program, which helps pay for daily flight service.

Southern Airways secured the EAS contract last year at $2.371 million, requiring it to provide 26 weekly roundtrip passenger flights to and from the Altoona-Blair County Airport.

As way to build passenger numbers, Southern proposed and the airport authority endorsed the idea of flying to BWI as well as Pittsburgh. Flights to Baltimore started Nov. 19 and airport leaders remain hopeful that flights east and west will bring in more passengers.

For airports to retain their EAS subsidy, DOT has advised that passenger numbers should average 33 per day, with an average of 10 on outbound flights.

While the Altoona-Blair County Airport has never hit 33 daily passenger in recent years, its average number of outbound passengers was 11 per day in September, then 10 per day in October and November. All other months registered fewer than 10 passengers per day, on average, on outbound flights.

Still, the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority anticipates asking later this year for another waiver, supported by improved passenger numbers.

Southern Airways, meanwhile, is working on efforts to increase ridership, including a partnership with Saint Francis University in Loretto.

Of the 1,300 students who live on campus, about 300 to 400 might be looking for a flight home or elsewhere when it comes to semester breaks and holiday breaks, Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Montecalvo said Thursday.

The university’s staff members travel by air too, he said, to conferences and to engage in research-related work. Other flyers, he said, would include potential students, their parents, alumni and potential employees.

Low-fare shuttle buses are proposed as the way to get between the airports and Saint Francis.

“We like the partnership that’s developing with Southern Air Express,” Montecalvo said. “We see it as a good thing all around … and expect to be in full operation by the fall of this year.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.