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The sky’s the limit: Jet aircraft proposed for Blair County airport’s future

Contour Airlines CEO Matt Chaifetz (third from left) talks with Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority members Drew Swope, Tom Hite and Herb Bolger (from left) inside the company’s Embraer ERJ-145 jet at the airport on Tuesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

MARTINSBURG — Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority members are collectively supporting the proposed use of a jet for daily passenger flights at the local facility.

Contour Airlines, the Smyrna, Tenn., company being recommended to take over daily passenger flights, flew a 30-passenger jet into the airport on Tuesday.

“Impressive,” authority member Tom Hite said of the aircraft.

“A 1,000 percent upgrade,” authority member Herb Bolger added.

If the authority’s application to enter the Alternate Essential Air Service program is approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Contour would start serving the airport on Oct. 1 with daily flights to and from the Philadelphia airport, an American Airlines hub where passengers can make connecting non-stop flights to multiple destinations.

Altoona-Blair County Airport manager Tracy Plessinger (left) talks with Contour Airlines CEO Matt Chaifetz near the company’s Embraer ERJ-145 jet at the airport on Tuesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

The county airport currently depends on San Francisco-based Boutique Air to provide daily passenger flights to the Pittsburgh and Baltimore-Washington International airports via a Pilatus-PC 12 turboprop with eight passenger seats.

In 2021, Boutique transported almost 9,000 passengers to and from the county airport, the most since 2009.

In June, Boutique flew 1,024 passengers to and from the county airport, a record for the airline since starting service on Jan. 1, 2021.

Airport leaders say they’ve been satisfied with Boutique’s service, but the cost of future service prompted them to look into other options.

Earlier this year, Boutique applied to the government for $4.28 million annually in Essential Air Service subsidy to serve the county airport. At that price, Boutique would have to sell every seat on every flight to meet the government’s rules for airports to stay in the EAS program.

“That’s not realistic,” member Gary Orner said during Tuesday night’s monthly authority meeting. “We had to do what we had to do because Boutique’s numbers weren’t going to allow us to keep our Essential Air Service subsidy.”

After the authority voted in June to pursue entry into AEAS program, airport Manager Tracy Plessinger filed an application with the Department of Transportation, seeking $4.28 million in subsidy that can be awarded to the airport, to pay Contour Airlines for its first year of flights.

Because Contour flies a 30-seat aircraft, it’s anticipated that growth in passenger numbers will help the Altoona-Blair County Airport continue efforts to cut its subsidy to less than $200 per passenger, one of the rules for remaining in the EAS and AEAS programs.

While the Altoona-Blair County Airport’s subsidy was listed at $225 per passenger in June, that’s an improvement over higher levels from years ago, when the airport secured waivers to stay in the EAS program while pursuing improvements.

Until 2014, flyers using the county airport had access to a large aircraft, a 34-seat twin engine Saab flown by Silver Airways. But canceled flights and other complaints prompted the airport authority to support Sun Air’s proposal for passenger flight service.

In 2014, Sun Air introduced flights in an eight-seat aircraft. Its successors, Southern Airways and Boutique, also relied on the smaller single engine aircraft.

Airport authority member Mike Ritchey said he thinks Contour’s use of a 30-seat jet aircraft will make a difference to those flying to and from the county airport. He also described the jet as more reliable and faster than the smaller aircraft.

“Just the jet service,” Ritchey said. “That is such a big deal.”

The Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau recently posted a comment on the Department of Transportation’s website, expressing concern from its members in the Raystown Lake region about the anticipated loss of flights to and from the Pittsburgh and BWI airports.

Plessinger said that most of county airport passengers — about 85% — make connecting flights at the Pittsburgh and BWI airports.

When Contour starts flying to Philadelphia and possibly to Charlotte in the future, Plessinger said their options for flight connections are going to increase.

“The more convenient we can make that, the better we’re serving our community,” Plessinger said.

The Huntingdon County agency also mentioned its concern about the loss of rental car service that Boutique provided at the county airport. Prior efforts to set up rental car services haven’t lasted.

Plessinger said Contour Airlines CEO Matt Chaifetz, who arrived on the jet flown to the airport on Tuesday, has pledged his company’s cooperation.

“(Chaifetz) said: ‘You let me get in here and we’ll start building the numbers and (the car rental agencies) will come to you,'” Plessinger said.

As for Contour’s ticket prices, Plessinger said the cost is estimated at $39 to $79, depending on booking dates and other factors. Contour’s website also shows that it sometimes offers discounted fares as low as $18.99 for last-minute bookings.

Until the airport authority receives approval for entry into the AEAS program, the federal government has directed Boutique Air to continue flight service at the county airport based on its current schedule.

The government also recently issued an order indicating that as of May 11 and until further notice, Boutique will be compensated based on its $4.28 million subsidy request which works out to $1,583 per flight.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.

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