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Airlines slow to respond to request for contract at Hagerstown airport

Federal subsidy likely to expire before a carrier is found

Federal subsidy likely to expire before a carrier is found

April 15, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- It is unlikely that passenger airlines will take advantage of a federal subsidy to fly to Hagerstown Regional Airport before that subsidy expires this September, Airport Business Development Manager Greg Larsen said Friday.

Larsen said if the airport contracts with a carrier by the fall it probably would be outside of the subsidy program.

The Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidy, which pays airlines to fly to communities far from larger hub airports, was to expire on Sept. 30, 2007, but was extended to Sept. 30, 2008.

Hagerstown's most recent carrier, Air Midwest, received that subsidy and left the airport on Sept. 30, when its contract ended.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on April 8 sent a request for proposals looking for carriers interested in providing EAS service to Hagerstown as well as airports in Brookings, S.D., and Lancaster, Pa.

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That request was preceded by an identical request on Feb. 29 that received no response.

Larsen said the first request likely failed to elicit responses because it allowed carriers only three weeks to respond. The current request also gives carriers three weeks to respond.

The bigger problem, Larsen said, is that normal EAS contracts are for two years.

If a carrier were to sign a contract now, it would still take about two months to iron out flight schedules and staffing, which would leave less than three months for flights before the subsidy ends, Larsen said.

"Honestly, I'm dubious as to whether anyone will respond in that short of a window," Larsen said.

A full, five-year EAS reauthorization is on the docket to be discussed by the U.S. Senate this year, Larsen said.

The airport's terminal was quiet Friday. The gate was cordoned off, and empty trays were stacked on the X-ray machine. A television at the gate blared smooth jazz from The Weather Channel.

"It's a little lonely in here," said Danielle Hoban, who works at the Hertz Rental Car desk in the terminal.

She said business has slowed since Air Midwest left in September 2007.

Carol Pyles, who works at the Avis Rent-A-Car desk, agreed that business had slowed since passenger service stopped but said the decline was "not as dramatic as people might think."

She said the company sees five or six customers per day.

Larsen said the airport continues to talk with carriers about providing service without the subsidy.

With the recently finished, $61.8 million runway extension, the airport has the second-longest runway in the state behind Baltimore-Washington International Airport and is capable of landing planes larger than the 19- or 30-seat planes that EAS carriers typically use.

Larsen said the carriers he is talking with "aren't in expansion mode" right now, mostly due to high fuel prices.

Larsen said "there is a good possibility" that passenger service will return to Hagerstown in the fall, but he would not elaborate.

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