Local airports granted subsidy waivers

Blair, Cambria facilities will continue to get money for passenger flights from federal gov’t

The U.S. Department of Transportation granted waivers Tuesday to 21 airports, including the Altoona-Blair County Airport and the John P. Murtha Cambria County Airport in Johnstown, to remain in the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes the cost of providing daily passenger flights.

The Blair County Airport Authority, in a May letter to the Transportation Department, had asked for a waiver from EAS program requirements based on climbing passengers numbers and a pledge toward further reducing the per-passenger subsidy.

“We are now meeting the 10 enplanements per day requirement, and we have reduced our per-passenger subsidy from $448 in fiscal year 2016 to $304 in fiscal year 2017,” airport manager Tracy Plessinger advised the department in letters sent in May and June.

The EAS program allows airports to receive up to $200 per passenger in subsidy. But for those airports requiring more subsidy or falling below 10 boarding passengers a day, the department considers waivers upon request.

“After careful consideration of this matter, the department has decided to grant the waiver petitions of all 21 communities that petitioned the department for a waiver from one or both eligibility requirements,” Joel Szabat, deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, an­nounced in an order distributed Tuesday.

“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 per passenger subsidy,” Szabat stated.

Other Pennsylvania airports granted waivers are those serving DuBois, Bradford, Franklin/Oil City and Lancaster.

In seeking the waiver, Plessinger advised the Transportation Department that the national pilot shortage was hardest on the smallest airports and carriers like Southern Airways Express, which provides daily passenger flights between the Altoona-Blair County and the Pittsburgh and Baltimore-Washington airports.

“With overall (flight) completion percentages by Southern Airways Express in the 70 percent range for 2017, and many months with completion significantly below that, (Altoona-Blair County Airport) passengers were forced to find alternate access to the national transportation system,” Ples­sing­er wrote in May.

Plessinger also told the department that Southern Airways did not become fully staffed with pilots until November 2017. In addition, the airline took months to set up ticketing and baggage arrangements with Ameri­can Airlines, which became a reality in May.

“Not only does that allow a much more pleasant and efficient travel experience for our outbound passengers, it also allows inbound passengers to easily find our flights on all the major online ticketing agencies,” Plessinger wrote.

Plessinger’s June letter was written to the department in support of retaining Southern Airways Express as the carrier providing daily passenger flights at the airport. Two additional carriers, Boutique Air and Aviation Street, showed interest in serving the airport by providing daily flights. But the authority recognized Southern Air­ways’ commitment and co­operation with the authority on efforts to build passenger numbers.

The selection of a carrier to serve the Altoona-Blair County Airport rests with the Transportation Depart­ment, which also determines the subsidy to be paid to the carrier.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.