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Airport services uncertain

May 18, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks spawned a fear of flying, regional airlines remained cautiously optimistic that air travelers wouldn't abandon them.

After all, they argued, their service offers passengers a way to avoid long security lines and other hassles encountered at larger airports.

Their hopes never materialized.

Airline travel in general declined. Smaller airlines such as the ones that serve Hagerstown Regional Airport were hit particularly hard.

U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show that air routes under 250 miles saw a 25 percent to 30 percent drop in traffic after September 2001, said Deborah McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association.

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"In the post 9/11 environment, we've seen passengers driving rather than flying to the hub airport," she said. "It is a tough market."

It was in this tough market that Hagerstown Regional Airport launched a shuttle service to Baltimore-Washington International with the help of a $4.25 million state grant. So far, it has not lived up to expectations.

Airport officials say the shuttle service would have succeeded if given more time.

The state, in light of declining passenger counts, chose to end the subsidy this year.

Boston-Maine Airways is not scheduling any flights to Baltimore past June 30, said Dan Fortnam, the airline's vice president of sales and marketing.

The airline is working to determine whether there would be enough community interest to begin daily flights to Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. From there, it's about a 40-minute drive into New York City.

Fortnam said the change in people's attitudes about flying after Sept. 11 hurt regional airlines such as Boston-Maine.

"A lot of the business traffic has found other ways to do business," he said.

Nationwide, 26 airports have lost airline service from August 2001 to April 2003 due to a drop in ridership, McElroy said.

When there are fewer passengers, airlines are forced to raise prices to make a profit, and that sometimes starts a downward spiral, she said.

Although Boston-Maine's Pan Am Clipper Connection shuttle to Baltimore did not fare well, the airport's anchor airline has weathered the storm, said Tony Dahbura, chairman of the airport's advisory commission.

US Airways offers daily connecting service to Pittsburgh International Airport from Hagerstown. Airline representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

That service is facing some controversy of its own since US Airways announced in March it would end its lease with Pittsburgh unless it can negotiate a better deal.

While there is doubt whether US Airways will keep a hub in Pittsburgh, there is no indication the airline will drop its service from Hagerstown, said Dahbura and Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz.

"We're not going to complain about our passenger loads," Motz said.

US Airways already has a hub in Philadelphia and it's likely the connecting flights would continue through there or through another hub airport, Motz said.

All the speculation, however, is not good for business.

"Every time we put doubts in people's minds, they get afraid to buy a ticket," Motz said. "If you think somebody's going to be gone, you make other arrangements."

Meanwhile, the long-term future of passenger service at Hagerstown may hinge on the extension of the airport's runway to 7,000 feet from 5,450 feet.

New Federal Aviation Administration safety rules will require a larger buffer area which will decrease the runway's usable length in about four years, Dahbura said. That would place restrictions on the turboprop airplanes that now fly in and out of Hagerstown, which could threaten the viability of commercial air service, he said.

Also, many regional airlines are moving toward the use of regional jets, which would require a longer runway, he said.

The Washington County Commissioners have been working on the $61.5 million runway extension project for years. They now are trying to decide how to pay for it since they will not get immediately reimbursed by the federal government, which would pick up most of the tab.

Keeping commercial air service and many satellite businesses the airport draws is vital to the county's economic development, Dahbura said.

"It's pretty much a slam dunk," he said. "We just need to work through some of the details."

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