Airport to remain in subsidy program

MARTINSBURG — The Altoona-Blair County Airport is among the latest group of airports to receive waivers to remain in the federal Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes daily passenger flight service.

The Transportation Department, in an order rendered this week and posted online, acknowledged ongoing efforts reported by the airports to build passenger numbers and reduce subsidy rates.

“After careful consideration of this matter, the department has decided to grant the waiver petitions of 18 of the 19 communities seeking waivers,” the order states. “The department acknowledges that there were challenges arising from the air service provided at these communities, including a nationwide commercial pilot shortage that caused reliability issues and resulted in increases in the per passenger subsidy.”

Besides the Altoona-Blair County Airport, waivers to remain in the EAS program were also granted to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport and to airports in DuBois, Bradford, Franklin/Oil City and Lancaster.

The airport not receiving a waiver is located in Jamestown, N.Y., and its subsidy is slated to end Jan. 15.

In excluding the Jamestown airport, the order mentioned that its location is 76 miles away from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and 61 miles away from the Erie International Airport. That access, the government concluded, makes it unlikely that Jamestown’s passenger numbers, identified as 4,408 for the 2016 fiscal year, will increase enough to put the airport into compliance with program requirements.

As for the Altoona airport, the government’s latest order referenced the receipt of a late report on passenger numbers and a subsequent correction to 5,297 passengers in the 2016 fiscal year.

Based on that level, the government indicated that Altoona’s airport was being subsidized at $448 per passenger and that it averaged 8.5 boarding passengers a day.

While Essential Air Service airports are restricted to a maximum subsidy of $200 per passenger and required to average a minimum of 10 boarding passengers a day, the government has been willing to grant waivers if it believes there’s a potential for change.

Airport representatives — including Altoona-Blair County Airport Manager Tracy Plessinger — filed letters last year advising the government of efforts aimed at meeting the program requirements.

“All of these 18 communities … have indicated that they are working with their carrier to improve service and attract passengers and expect their subsidy per passenger to decline,” the government’s latest order stated.

The order also noted that four airports — Altoona, DuBois, Franklin/Oil City and Victoria, Texas, — have shown improvements in their boarding passenger numbers toward meeting the 10 per day requirement.

Southern Airways currently holds the contract to provide daily passenger flights at the Altoona-Blair County Airport. It receives $2.371 million annually for 26 weekly roundtrip flights split between Pittsburgh and Baltimore. While Southern’s contract is valid through Sept. 30, the contract is up for grabs this year with the government expected to advertise for companies interested in submitting proposals.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.