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Mikulski joins fight to save local flights

March 23, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - As Washington County waits to hear whether scheduled passenger service will continue at Hagerstown Regional Airport, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said Tuesday she wants to send a strong message in support of the airport to the federal government.

Mikulski, D-Md., during a meeting with the Washington County Commissioners, said she plans to ask U.S. senators from Pennsylvania and West Virginia to support the airport's request to be reinstated as an Essential Air Service facility.

The meeting was in the second-floor conference room at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, just down the hall from Mikulski's new Western Maryland office.

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The county recently asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to redesignate the airport as an essential air facility to ensure commercial flights will continue at the county-owned airport.

The essential air designation would allow the federal government to subsidize a commercial carrier in order to keep scheduled passenger service at the airport.

The essential air program helps ensure that small airports maintain a minimum level of passenger service.

The majority of the airport's passengers are from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, airport business development manager Greg Larsen said.

"We're the three anchors, aren't we?" Mikulski said. "This is your commercial traffic, and that's what we need to emphasize."

Mikulski told the Commissioners that because the county airport serves Pennsylvania and West Virginia, she will ask U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Arlen Specter R-Pa., Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., next week to sign a letter of support for the redesignation.

Larsen said that 40 percent of the airport's passengers are from Maryland, 40 percent are from Pennsylvania and the remainder come from West Virginia and Virginia.

"We always thought of ourselves as being a regional facility," Larsen said.

The airport lost the essential service designation in 2003 when federal regulators determined it was less than 70 miles from Dulles International Airport by the shortest driving route. A change in the law since then requires the government to measure the distance over the most commonly traveled route, which local and state officials say is 78 miles.

Air Midwest, which provides Hagerstown flights to and from Pittsburgh for U.S. Airways Express, announced in January that it planned to stop the service effective March 6 because the flights weren't profitable.

The carrier has since said the service would continue through May 17.

The number of daily flights, however, dropped from four to two, according to U.S. Airways.

May 17 reflects a 90-day notice period required by the federal government for carriers seeking to terminate essential air service. Mesa Air Group, the company that owns Air Midwest, argued that the notice period should not apply since Hagerstown currently is ineligible for the subsidy, the Associated Press reported earlier this month.

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