Local air service will change Oct. 31/Nov. 1 at Hagerstown Regional Airport, when a new carrier starts flying to a new destination.
On Wednesday, Cape Air’s flights between Hagerstown and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will end, said Andrew Bonney, the airline’s vice president of planning.
On Thursday, Sun Air International will start service between Hagerstown and Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.
Sun Air will begin with two flights per day, or 14 a week. Starting Dec. 2, the schedule will increase to 24 flights a week — four each weekday and two apiece on Saturday and Sunday.
In August, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved Sun Air to serve both Hagerstown and Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Pa., through Sept. 30, 2015, under the federal Essential Air Service program.
The federal government will pay Sun Air $1.79 million per year to provide 24 nonstop round-trip flights to Dulles per week, according to the DOT order authorizing the new service.
Sun Air will get $2.5 million per year for 30 nonstop round-trip flights between Lancaster and Dulles.
The EAS subsidy is for communities that are not close to metropolitan airports.
Cape Air has received an EAS subsidy since it started serving Hagerstown in March 2009.
The new order says Lancaster and Hagerstown also could have had Sun Air continue the BWI flights. The annual subsidy to Sun Air would have been $1.72 million for Hagerstown and $2.35 million for Lancaster.
David Hackett of Sun Air said his company bid for the Hagerstown and Lancaster routes confident it could significantly boost local passenger travel — possibly 20 percent or 30 percent — by flying to Dulles instead of BWI.
Dulles tends to have more expensive fares, he said.
However, many passengers will have an easier time transferring to connecting flights at Dulles, a United hub, than BWI, a Southwest hub, Hackett said.
That’s because United has an “interline” agreement and Southwest does not, he said.
The luggage of passengers who start on another airline and connect to a United flight automatically will be forwarded with the flight. Passengers connecting to Southwest flights have to claim their bags, then recheck them, Hackett said.
A good change
Washington County Commissioner William B. McKinley, who serves on the airport’s advisory commission, said Dulles was seen as a likely more popular destination for Hagerstown passengers.
When his family flies, three out of every four times, it’s from Dulles, he said.
Bonney, of Cape Air, agreed that service to Dulles might be a good change for Washington County.
Hackett said Sun Air considered Philadelphia as a destination instead of Dulles, but had a tougher time getting gate access.
Sun Air’s goal was to set a round-trip price between Hagerstown and Dulles at about $100, Hackett said.
A reporter picking a sample flight leaving Hagerstown on Nov. 5 and returning from Dulles on Nov. 6 was quoted a price of $95.10, including taxes and fees, on Sun Air’s website on Friday.
Cape Air is using nine-passenger Cessna 402 planes. Sun Air will use nine-passenger Piper Chieftains.
This week’s transition from Cape Air on Wednesday to Sun Air on Thursday means Hagerstown will continue having two carriers.
The other is Allegiant, which flies to Orlando Sanford International Airport in Florida.
A low-key start
Washington County spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher said the first month of service, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 1, is seen as a “soft start” for Sun Air.
There will be a kickoff event at the airport around Nov. 1, then a larger event around Dec. 1, she said.
Sun Air requested that publicity be low key to start, then build up later, she said.
Hackett acknowledged that. He said the airline is starting small in its number of flights and marketing so it doesn’t take on more than it can handle.
In 2011, Cape Air’s passenger load factor, or success in filling seats, was 42 percent for Lancaster and 28 percent for Hagerstown, Bonney said.
Those were some of the lowest load factors the airline has and they didn’t grow, he said.
Still, they were sufficient numbers to operate in those markets because of the subsidy, he said.
Cape Air serves 17 communities through EAS subsidies, Hackett said. Overall, though, the majority of the airline’s service is not subsidized.
Sun Air has EAS-funded service in Texas and is starting soon in Georgia, Hackett said.
Hagerstown was on the verge of losing its status as an EAS airport last year during a protracted battle over the worth and scope of the subsidy program in Congress.
President Obama signed a law in February keeping Hagerstown and Lancaster eligible for EAS subsidies through Sept. 30, 2015, according to the DOT.
No airline bid on continuing EAS service to Hagerstown and Lancaster in March. When the route was put to bid again, only Sun Air applied.