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Airport gets OK for new flights

Daily passenger trips to Philadelphia to begin in fall

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Altoona-Blair County Airport has permission to start offering daily passenger flights to Philadelphia as of Oct. 1, based on its entry into the Alternate Essential Air Service program.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a notice Friday indicating that the airport’s request to participate in the federally-funded program has been approved.

In the same notice, the department acknowledged that the airport will exit the Essential Air Service program as of Sept. 30, thereby ending daily flights to the Baltimore/Washington and Pittsburgh airports provided by Boutique Air of San Francisco.

Local airport leaders, who proposed entry into the AEAS program and the use of Contour Airlines for the Philadelphia flights, have been anticipating the approval notice issued Friday.

In the AEAS program, the transportation department will provide $4.28 million annually to the airport authority so it can pay for public charter air service to be offered by Contour Airlines. The airline is expected to schedule 12 non-stop round trips a week to Philadelphia via a 30-seat regional jet.

“Contour has a record of providing reliable public charter service at several EAS communities, and the department notes that passenger levels and reliability have increased at those communities since the airline commenced service,” the approval order stated. “The department also believes that the proposed use of 30-seat ERJ-135 and CRJ-200 aircraft likely will have a positive impact on passenger traffic at the community.”

While getting into the AEAS program seemed to progress smoothly since airport Manager Tracy Plessinger submitted an application in late June, remaining in the program may not be as easy.

The government noted that for the Altoona-Blair County Airport to stay in the AEAS program with a $4.28 million grant, it will need to attract at least 21,400 passengers. That’s based on a government rule limiting subsidy to a maximum amount of $200 per passenger.

For 2021, Boutique Air counted almost 9,000 passengers, the airport’s best showing 2009.

While Boutique Air advised the U.S. Department of Transportation that it wanted to remain the EAS carrier at the Altoona-Blair County Airport for $4.28 million, the Altoona-Blair County Airport declined to recommend its renewal.

Based on Boutique’s use of an eight- or nine-seat aircraft, airport authority members concluded that almost every seat on every flight would have to be sold to comply with EAS subsidy requirements.

The requirements for the EAS program are the same as the AEAS program. While the requirements were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic and currently remain suspended, the order issued Friday indicates that the requirements will be in effect starting Oct. 1, the same day Contour begins serving the airport.

The order issued Friday also noted that if Altoona exceeds the $200 per passenger subsidy cap in the AEAS program, the transportation secretary can grant a temporary waiver.

Another notation in the order states that the Altoona-Blair County Airport can request to be reinstated to the traditional EAS program, but that could potentially result in a hiatus in air service.

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

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