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Commissioners "shell shocked" after learning of Direst Air's abrupt decision

August 20, 2011|By HEATHER KEELS | heather.keels@herald-mail.com

Frustrated with Direct Air's abrupt decision to stop flights out of Hagerstown Regional Airport, at least one Washington County commissioner was critical of the way the company handled its decision.

John F. Barr said earlier this month that the commissioners were "shell shocked" when they learned of the company's decision late on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 9, in a closed session at the end of their weekly meeting.

The airline said flights between Hagerstown and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Lakeland, Fla., would end after Aug. 21, less than two months after they began.

"Frankly, I think Direct Air pulling out the way they did, and particularly the timing, is really a slap in the commissioners' face," Barr said.

"Had they made a phone call on Monday or Tuesday and said, 'We'd like to sit down with the county administrator and the director of the airport and even a couple of the commissioners,' it certainly would have gone over a lot better," Barr said.

But Ed Warneck, president and managing partner for Direct Air, said the news should not have come as a surprise.

"It was discussed as early as June, when we launched, that the numbers were soft and needed to come up," Warneck said. "We continued that dialogue throughout the months of July and August."

He said airport officials and some of the commissioners participated in those discussions.

"I can understand John's frustrations, but it takes a lot to fly planes and establish service," he said. "It doesn't just happen because you make an announcement."

Barr said another source of frustration was that the county provided "an incredible amount of incentives and giveaways and assistance" to Direct Air, yet there seemed to be an expectation that the county offer even more.

According to Airport Business Development Manager Greg Larsen, the airport provided ground-handling services for Direct Air, including ticketing, baggage handling, boarding coordination, and handling the arrival and departure of the plane. It also waived some of the fees normally associated with a carrier's presence in the passenger terminal, and the county contributed to Direct Air's advertising campaigns, Larsen said.

Warneck said Direct Air's investment in the project was more than double that put on the table by Washington County.

He said support and interest from Washington County were lagging in comparison to other destinations, but that was not a factor in the decision to stop flights.

Barr also said he "wasn't particularly fond" of Direct Air's business model, particularly its inconsistent ticket prices with deep discounts appearing two weeks before the scheduled flight.

"I'll be honest with you, my wife and I said here the other week, 'Why book in advance? Let's wait and take our chances and see if they don't throw another deal on,'" he said.

Not having enough advance ticket sales for the fall and winter months was one of several factors Direct Air cited for ending service, along with fuel costs, aircraft availability and a slowing of leisure travel spending nationwide.

"As far as having the last-minute sales, the only reason that was done was, quite frankly, if we didn't, we were looking at very, very low sales," Warneck said. "There were days only one or two people would book the entire destination."

Those discounts were money out of Direct Air's pocket, with ticket sales at times not even covering the fuel costs, he said.

That was expected at first, he said.

"We don't mind flying the plane at a loss or a little bit of a loss or at cost, even, in a ramp-up situation, but you can't continue to do that, and it just is not giving enough strength to us," he said.

Warneck said he thought the economy was to blame, and said airlines are grounding planes and pulling back on service across the board.

The decision about whether to return to Hagerstown will depend on several factors, including the availability of funding for advertising and promotion, Warneck said.

"We've got no disappointments with the folks that operate the airport and all that," he said. "We're planning on having discussion meetings starting the end of October to talk about bringing the routes again next year, possibly as early as spring."

Although Barr indicated he wasn't eager go hold such talks, a news release issued by Washington County said Direct Air and Washington County officials "intend to continue discussions and initiate planning efforts" around Nov. 1 about resuming the service from the county-owned airport in the future.

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