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Feds hold key to future flights

February 24, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - There's a chance commercial flights could continue without disruption at Hagerstown Regional Airport after March 5, the last day of scheduled U.S. Airways passenger service.

The fate of the service depends on whether the airport is reinstated as an "Essential Air Service" facility by the U.S. Department of Transportation. With the designation, it's possible the federal government would subsidize a commercial carrier to offer flights at the airport.

The essential air program helps ensure that small airports maintain a minimum level of passenger service, according to the county.

Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said Wednesday that Gov. Robert Ehrlich has signed a document that's required by the federal Department of Transportation to be considered for reinstatement of the designation.

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If the airport is reinstated, Motz said it's possible the Department of Transportation would require the carrier providing the Hagerstown flights for U.S. Airways to stay put until another carrier is found.

"We obviously would like the DOT to say to them we would hold you here," Motz said.

"As soon as we get any word whatsoever, we're going to let everyone know immediately," Motz said.

Air Midwest, owned by Mesa Air Group, said in January it planned to stop its four daily flights to and from Pittsburgh effective March 6. The carrier provides the flights for U.S. Airways.

U.S. Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in January that U.S. Airways had no plans to reinstate the scheduled passenger service once Air Midwest left.

Kudwa said Monday that, as of now, March 5 is the last day for the flights.

Linda Larsen, corporate communications manager for Mesa Air Group, confirmed Wednesday that Air Midwest would have to stay in Hagerstown until another commercial carrier is found if directed to do so by the Department of Transportation.

She said profit was the reason Air Midwest wants to stop the Hagerstown service.

"It has not been a profitable market," she said. "We haven't been able to make enough money."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said at a commissioners meeting on Tuesday that the carrier has yet to give the airport official notice that it's leaving.

Larsen said Air Midwest is waiting for approval from the federal Department of Transportation to pull out.

The airport lost the Essential Air Service designation a few years ago, after the federal government determined it was within 70 miles of Dulles International Airport - a deciding factor in the classification being dropped.

Motz said that route was made up of back roads through northern Virginia and was not the most commonly traveled route.

Ehrlich, however, recently certified a common route from Hagerstown to Dulles that includes interstate travel, Motz said. That route puts the distance to Dulles at 78 miles, making the airport again eligible for the Essential Air Service designation.

"We're only asking for what should be rightfully ours as a community," Motz said. "It's not a lark ... It is what we're entitled to."

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