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Airport officials mull subsidy options

Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz is asking the local delegation to the General Assembly to join her in the push

Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz is asking the local delegation to the General Assembly to join her in the push

December 30, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Local officials will challenge a state agency's recommendation that a state subsidy be ended this summer for a year-old air service connecting the Cumberland and Hagerstown airports with Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The state originally agreed to subsidize the service by $5 million over a three-year period but instead it is now spending $4.25 million over less than two years.

Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said she is asking the local delegation to the Maryland General Assembly to join her in a push to get a state subsidy of $750,000 so the service can continue for one more year.

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The Maryland Aviation Administration has recommended not continuing the subsidy for Boston-Maine Airways past June 30. The thrice-daily flights have not drawn enough customers to be independently profitable, according to a report the agency sent to legislative leaders and Gov. Parris Glendening.

"I feel very strongly this could work. But we are going to need three years and $5 million," Motz said. "It is not unreasonable to me that it would take more than one year."

Del. John Donoghue and Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said they will support keeping the subsidized service going but expect it will be a difficult fight because of the tight budget, poor economy and the absence this legislative session of State House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland, Md.

Taylor, the influential Democrat who was defeated by Republican LeRoy E. Myers Jr. in November, pushed for the service connecting the flights that began Dec. 28, 2001.

"(Taylor) is the reason it was there in the first place," Motz said.

"That was Cas' baby," said Donoghue, D-Washington. "The only reason we have it is because of him."

Supporters of the subsidized service must now continue the fight without Taylor in office, Motz said.

"It is a harder fight without him," Donoghue said.

"I guess it's time to cut the apron strings and prove it on our own," Motz said.

The service has also been hurt by bad timing, starting soon after the Sept. 11. terrorist attacks, officials said.

The local officials, as well as the state report, said that nationwide the airline industry has had significant decreases in the level of customers since the terrorist attacks.

Snook and Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said they would like the service to continue because of its economic benefit to the area, but they would also like to get information on how many people from the Washington County area are actually using the service.

"It does not make sense to spend millions of dollars if there are only a few users," Wivell said.

The report says about 8,500 passengers have used the service since it began. Specific numbers about the number of Hagerstown passengers were not immediately available.

In order for the service to be profitable and break even, the average load factor per day needs to be about 45 percent, the report said. The load factor from February through June was 25 percent, and it is currently about 15 percent, the report said.

The Hagerstown airport has marketed the service as an alternative to a drive to BWI but some local residents would still rather drive there, even if it means facing possible traffic delays between Hagers-town and the Baltimore airport, said Tony Dahbura, chairman of the Hagers-town Regional Airport Commission.

"Hagerstown will always be competing with Interstate 70 as long as people do not mind paying the dollars to park and don't mind the traffic," Dahbura said.

Dahbura, who uses the airline about once a month, said the service encountered some snags but those are being worked out.

One of the problems is that the airline's flights are not listed in computer reservation system programs that travel agents use to book flights, he said. That has probably hurt the number of people using the service, he said.

The computer problem will be resolved shortly, he said.

Another obstacle is that passengers using the airline have to move baggage from its planes to connecting flights at BWI from other airlines, he said.

But Motz said Southwest Airlines, which has at least 40 percent of all BWI flights, also makes passengers move their baggage from its airline to others.

The airport delayed the start of a marketing campaign until November while snags were worked out, including adjusting the schedule to business travelers' needs, Greg Larsen, marketing director of the airport, said Friday.

The airport has spent $5,000 on the campaign that ends today.

The campaign mentions Boston-Maine has pitched in with a 2-for-1 holiday special on its $140 round-trip fare through Jan. 15.

Airport management will continue the campaign in 2003.

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