Service to remain in Blair

Airport manager ‘happy,’ even without increased flights

The U.S. Department of Transportation has named Southern Airways Express to continue providing daily passenger flights at the Altoona-Blair County Airport at Martinsburg.

In an announcement posted Wednesday, the department said that it would award a two-year contract to Southern, at $2.54 million annually, to provide 26 roundtrip flights a week, divided between the Pittsburgh International and Baltimore-Washington International airports.

In a meeting earlier this year, the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority endorsed Southern for another two-year contract based on efforts the company has made to attract more passengers and improve reliability.

“We’re happy the government chose Southern again but disappointed that they didn’t increase the number of our flights,” Altoona-Blair County Airport Manager Tracy Plessinger said Wednesday. “Having more flights would have given people more flexibility.”

The authority, at a meeting earlier this year, advised the government that it wanted to retain Southern to provide daily passenger flight service through the Essential Air Service program. But the authority also asked for the government to consider Southern’s plan to offer 38 roundtrip flights a week, split between the Pittsburgh and BWI airports, at an annual subsidy of $3.08 million.

“While the department is not selecting the specific option the community recommended, Altoona maintains the same frequency it currently receives with the dual-hub service to PIT and BWI, medium and large hub airports, with a wide array of domestic and global connections,” Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, stated in the department’s order.

The deputy secretary also referenced Southern’s 26 roundtrip flight schedule as “more similar” to the schedule Boutique Air will introduce in November at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.

On Aug. 8, the department chose Boutique to begin serving the Cambria County airport at a subsidy of

$3.16 million to provide 30 roundtrip flights a week to the PIT and BWI airports.

“The two communities will have a similar number of weekly seats (468 for Altoona and 480 for Johnstown),” Szabat stated in the order. He also described Southern’s proposed service and subsidy level “to be reasonable.”

Plessinger also said that even though the government didn’t choose Southern’s options with more flights, he thinks the airport can improve ridership to reduce the per passenger subsidy to less than the $200 maximum target.

The Altoona-Blair County Airport currently holds a waiver to exceed the $200 per passenger subsidy and has been directed to keep up with efforts to reduce it.

Plessinger said the airport’s passenger numbers have been increasing.

The latest report, for flights completed in July, showed 369 passengers departing from the Altoona-Blair County Airport, an average of 14 per day. An additional 340 passengers flew into the airport, an average of 13 per day.