By HEATHER KEELS
5:58 PM EDT, August 20, 2011
Despite the loss of Hagerstown Regional Airport's sixth carrier in 10 years, Washington County and airport officials said they remain committed to offering commercial passenger service at the airport.
"That's the purpose of the airport," said Terry Baker, president of the Board of County Commissioners.
"Our airport will thrive regardless of the level of commercial passenger service that we have, but we really need to have that passenger service," Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham said.
Direct Air, which provided twice-weekly flights between Hagerstown and Lakeland, Fla., with stops in Myrtle Beach, S.C., announced last week that it would end those flights after today.
The decision, after less than two months of service, marked the second time an airline had attempted a vacation destination-oriented, less-than-daily-service model from Hagerstown only to give it up shortly after. Allegiant Air, which flew to Orlando-Sanford International Airport, ended its service in July 2010 after about a year and a half.
But county and airport officials are not giving up on attracting and retaining commercial carriers.
Greg Larsen, the county's airport business development manager, said the airport already has started to reach out to some of the other operators it was talking to before landing Direct Air.
"We're going to be very aggressive about talking to these carriers and get them to look at the success of not only Allegiant, but also Direct," Larsen said. "Those numbers were very, very strong for something that was less than two months old."
Destination-oriented Direct Air's departure leaves the airport's Cape Air commuter service as the only local carrier. Cape Air flies between Hagerstown and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
While activity at the airport reaches far beyond commercial service, the commissioners agreed they would not want to see the airport without it, as it was for more than a year in 2007 and 2008.
"Is it do or die for Hagerstown and Washington County? No. But it is very nice" to have carrier service, Commissioner John F. Barr said.
"There's private planes in and out of the airport on an hourly, daily basis, there's military planes day and night in and out of the airport, and that's a whole different realm," Barr said.
Callaham said she saw several reasons for continuing to pursue commercial service. Not only does it provide a convenience for local travelers, but it improves the county's position as an attractive, viable location for businesses, and it can open the door for federal grant money, she said.
"If we get 10,000 emplanements, that puts us in line for grants offered by the FAA," Callaham said.
Hagerstown Regional Airport has been receiving a federal subsidy for airports that are far from metro areas. That subsidy has drawn carriers to Hagerstown that otherwise would not have served the local airport because it covers some of their costs.
As part of an FAA budget extension bill, Congress eliminated subsidies to 13 airports, including Hagerstown's. However, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was given the authority to continue those subsidies, although there has been no process announced for those airports to appeal.
Commissioner Jeffrey A. Cline agreed that commercial service is important.
"It's just another amenity that Hagerstown can offer for quality of life," he said. "Another important reason to live here and work here."
Larsen said the county's rocky commercial service history over the past decade has reflected larger struggles within the airline industry largely set in motion by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
New security screening procedures lengthened wait times and made passengers reconsider the convenience of shorter-distance flights versus driving. Several airlines — including US Airways, which then flew from Hagerstown to Pittsburgh — filed for bankruptcy, and US Airways cut back its operations at Pittsburgh International Airport.
"We just had an ever-challenging situation in this industry, and as a consequence I think small communities generally got the short end of the stick," Larsen said. "Airlines looked at very small communities like Hagerstown that, in the greater scheme of things, contribute comparatively few passengers to their overall operations, and, in their eyes, to create efficiencies, they probably decided small communities just needed to go away."
With the help of a federal Essential Air Service subsidy, service to Pittsburgh continued until 2007, when the latest US Airways carrier, Air Midwest, elected not to renew its contract.
Another factor that has hurt smaller airports is that 30-seat airplanes best suited for their passenger demands — such as the Saab 340s that Chautauqua Airlines and Shuttle America used for the commuter flights between Hagerstown and Pittsburgh — have fallen out of favor by airlines, Larsen said.
On top of these changes, Hagerstown Regional Airport was uniquely challenged because its airfield capacity was limited during its runway extension project, which began in 2004, Larsen said.
"When we finally got through the runway project at the end of 2007, that was a huge sigh of relief for us," Larsen said. "We were ready to take on the world, but by that time all of these hits had occurred in the domestic airline industry."
Now, the pieces are in place and the airport is working its way back up toward the passenger counts of better times, though the climb has been a rocky one, Larsen said.
"I think what will happen here is we'll get beyond these little burps and spurts and we'll align ourselves with a good partner," he predicted. "Once we get beyond that critical point, I think it's nothing but very exciting things for the Hagerstown region."
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