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Hagerstown airport hits its stride

February 15, 2009

Headwinds can be good things for airplanes, but not so much for airports. The Hagerstown Regional Airport has suffered from so much facial buffeting over the past several years that it was about due - and deserving - of a breeze at its back.

Had I been a Hagerstown airport administrator, I would have given up. That's it. I'd have gotten out of there and gone into phosphate manufacturing or something.

How do we count the troubles, some self-inflicted, some beyond local control?

A $60 million runway became a public whipping post when a scheme to make Hagerstown a hub for regional jets proved unworkable; airline after airline bailed, like refugees abandoning Haiti on a raft; ridership numbers struggled to break out of single digits; high ticket costs outweighed any benefits the airport might have to offer.

It got so bad that it took congressional action to declare that Hagerstown was a few more measly miles from Dulles than the federal government said it was. It sounded like an honorary degree: Be it known to all, that Hagerstown is conferred as being 71 miles from Dulles, not 65. (To be eligible for federal airline subsidies, an airport must be a certain distance from a major airport.)

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For years, it was one headache after another.

And now look. The only good news of late to come out of - well, anywhere - of late is brought to us by, yes, that hard-luck kid, the Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Talk about taking a punch and getting back off the mat. And who could have known it would all begin with a front-page photograph of airport Manager Carolyn Motz donning a pair of Mickey Mouse ears? If you didn't believe in Disney Magic before, now you do.

No one has been harder on the airport than me, but I take my own oversize ears off to Motz and business manager Greg Larsen for sticking with it and finding something that works.

The airport's assets have always been known: ridiculously easy access off the Interstate, plenty of free parking and a beautiful, modern terminal.

But all that has historically been trumped by one nagging factor - cost. Driving to BWI or Dulles and wrestling with distant, expensive parking and long lines in the terminal was unpleasant. Unpleasant but worth it, considering that a Hagerstown connection to Pittsburgh could add hundreds of dollars to the ticket price. Southwest from Baltimore to the West Coast was cheaper than from Hagerstown to anywhere.

Now, the airport in benefiting from more imaginative airline models.

The blueprint of Allegiant Air has worked elsewhere, and appears to be working here. Take a small airport not too far from major population centers and offer trips to popular vacation destinations at a reasonable price.

Sometimes these resort communities help defray the cost of the flight, in exchange for a plane full of money-spending tourists.

In Hagerstown, Allegiant has been filling planes for flights to Orlando. Big planes. During the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Extra-low promotional fares have helped, but even at full freight, this would seem to be promising.

If the model works in these times, perhaps it's not silly to be optimistic about the future. Allegiant seems to be. It's talking about adding routes at a time when a lot of us doubters figured that Orlando would be one and done.

Even more exciting in some circles was the announcement that beginning in March, Cape Air will offer $50, one-way flights to Baltimore, with four round trips a day.

Instead of the envisioned regional jets, the airport will be buzzing with nine-seat Cessnas.

And a $100 round trip is a deal. Considering the price of parking at the metropolitan areas and the gas it takes to get there, this is pretty close to a wash - not to mention a considerable time and frustration saver.

By going smaller instead of bigger, this plan would seem to have a serious chance at success. It's hard to imagine there aren't 36 people a day from the Greater Hagerstown area who are looking to fly out of BWI.

Some may quibble at the subsidy Cape Air will receive, and I might have at one time. But with $800 billion stimulus packages being bandied about, the thought of a scant airline subsidy now seems a bit quaint. Or you can see it as part of the green movement - mass transit between Hagerstown and the cities.

We've been lulled into false senses of hope about the airport before, only to see those hopes crumble. But, at the risk of going out on a limb, these new passenger scenarios would appear to have legs.

If so, credit Motz and Larsen for experimenting around until they found a formula that works, even in the face of largely negative public opinion. It should be rewarding to them that no one is laughing at the Mickey Mouse ears anymore.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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