HAGERSTOWN — Direct Air's inaugural flight into Hagerstown Regional Airport Thursday was about an hour behind schedule, but with a bluegrass band, sheet cake, a contest and speeches by local officials, outbound passengers had plenty to keep them busy.
The flight was the first of what will be twice-weekly service between Hagerstown Regional Airport and Lakeland, Fla., with stops in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Local officials heralded the service as not only a convenient travel option for area residents, but a chance to partner with Lakeland, Fla. — a central Florida city midway between Tampa and Orlando — to cross-promote tourism between Florida and Western Maryland.
Three Washington County commissioners — Terry Baker, John F. Barr and Ruth Anne Callaham — were among the passengers on the first flight to Lakeland, where they were to join government and tourism officials there in celebrating the new service.
The commissioners said they paid for their own tickets.
Thursday's Direct Air flight was the first regular passenger service at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in 23 years, according to the Lakeland newspaper, The Ledger.
"It's a great partnership, a great sister-city relationship, between Lakeland and Hagerstown," said Mark Jackson, director of Polk County (Fla.) Tourism and Sports Marketing, who flew in to escort the Washington County officials to the Lakeland airport.
Also aboard that flight was Ed Warneck, one of the owners of Direct Air, who called the service the beginning of a "new era."
"Think about the economic impact for this community," Warneck said. "We're very excited about that and being part of this history that's being made today."
He said if the service was successful, Direct Air hoped to be able to add additional destinations departing from Hagerstown.
Michael and Karen McCarthy of Lakeland were among the passengers arriving in Hagerstown on the inbound flight Thursday.
The McCarthys, who were visiting their daughter and new twin granddaughters in Baltimore, said the plane was about half-full coming into Hagerstown.
Low fares, convenience
The departing flight, on the other hand, was sold out, said Phil Ridenour, director of Hagerstown Regional Airport.
Direct Air flights are on 139-seat MD-80s, a change from theBoeing 737s originally planned, Ridenour has said.
Many of the passengers waiting to board said they booked the flight because of price or the convenience of departing from Hagerstown.
Paula McKewen of New Freedom, Pa., said in the past she and her husband had made the 10-hour drive to Myrtle Beach.
"We're just visiting family and glad that they have a direct flight at a reasonable price," she said.
Direct Air tickets begin at $79 each way, according to an airline news release.
Kim Weaver of Fairmont, W.Va., was flying to Florida with her daughter, Savanna, and sister, Mary Mason.
The women go on a "girls' trip" every summer, with a hope of eventually visiting all 50 states, Weaver said. In Florida, they planned to rent a car and drive to Disney World, about an hour's drive from the Lakeland airport.
Weaver said they chose the Direct Air flight from Hagerstown because of the price.
"It was just a really good rate compared to everything else," she said.
Dennis Sanders of Greencastle, Pa., had his golf clubs in tow as he waited in line to check in for his flight to Myrtle Beach.
He said if the Direct Air service had not been available, he would have flown there from Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport, but at 10 minutes from his house, the Hagerstown airport is much closer.
Sanders said he already had a second trip booked.
Peg Parrish had no idea the flight was Direct Air's first from Hagerstown when she booked a ticket for her daughter, 15-year-old McKenzie Parrish, to visit her grandparents in Myrtle Beach. McKenzie was flying with family friend Tanner Ierley, also 15, and the teens' parents plan to drive down to join them in a week, Parrish said.
In previous years, the teens flew from Phildelphia, she said.
"I feel safer, as a parent, sending them out of here than out at Philly," Parrish said. "It's too big and not as easy access. This is cake."
A busy day
Some of the flip-flop-clad travelers toting luggage around the terminal Thursday morning were there only on the off chance that they might win a seat on the plane.
In conjunction with local radio station 106.9 The Eagle, Direct Air was offering passengers who showed up packed and ready a chance to win two round-trip tickets to Florida, plus lodging, car rental and a dinner.
Twenty-five traveling pairs entered the contest, said Eagle Programming Director Kym McKay.
One such "spontaneous traveler," Shirley Burch of Hagerstown, wore a tropical shirt and broad-brimmed hat for good luck as she sipped from a pineapple-shaped cup in one of the airport's two white rocking chairs overlooking the runway.
Another entrant, Lisa Mimnall of Hagerstown, said she convinced her Frederick, Md., employer to let her take a break to drive to the Hagerstown airport to enter the contest with her daughter — and, if they won, to end her work week early.
The winners of the tickets were Tamara Cole of Hagerstown and her 10-year-old son, Michael.
Cole shouted and jumped in the air when her number was drawn before hugging her son.
"It's going to be my first plane ride," Michael said.
The inaugural flight also had at least one canine passenger, a small black affenpinscher named Miss Claire who was traveling to Myrtle Beach with owners Bonnie and Ray Pearrell.
Eric Powell, an equipment operator and maintenance worker at the airport, said it had been about a year since he had seen the terminal as busy as it was Thursday morning. The airport's last destination-oriented commercial carrier, Allegiant Air, ended its twice-weekly service between Hagerstown and Orlando last July.
In preparation for the big day, Powell said the airport had remodeled its outdoor area, adding more concrete space for a new, umbrella-shaded outdoor seating area.
"It's a big stepping stone for us," he said of the Direct Air service.