Backers say Aviation Hub is an Economic Engine for Reading

Apr. 22 -- THE AVERAGE JOE in Berks County can't catch a commuter plane at Reading Regional Airport because the service ended there in September 2004 after more than 50 years.

So what good's an airport if you can't fly from there?

And why is the airport still spending millions of federal dollars on improvements?

The answers, collected from aviation, business and government officials, boil down to:

The airport still handles more than 125,000 corporate and general aviation flights a year. At best, commuter planes made up no more than 10 percent of the flights in and out of the airport each year.

Berks needs an airport to keep the businesses it has and to entice new ones. No airport? Business goes elsewhere. Think jobs. And business people can catch a flight through one of the corporate services.

No community can afford to let its airport die. Once it's gone, it's nearly impossible to bring back.

Reading Regional pays for its own operations; it has never needed a city or county operations subsidy. And the federal money used for improvements comes from taxes on aviation fuel and fares.

Commuter air service is changing, and a new wave of air taxis is coming. They won't replace the commuter planes in volume, but they'll be more convenient.

All business

When companies consider where to locate, among their priorities is a nearby airport, said Michael A. Setley, chairman of the Reading Regional Airport Authority.

"This is a key asset for us, and one we need to nourish," said Jon C. Scott, president of the Berks Economic Partnership. "It's important in creating and keeping jobs. It's a very, very important asset for us."

How important?

Studies show that for every dollar spent on airport improvements, there's another $6 spent on off-airport projects, said Brian Gearhart, engineering and planning division manager for the state Bureau of Aviation, a division of the transportation department.

But airports' business draw is most important, said Robert H. Rockmaker, executive director of the Pennsylvania Aviation Council.

"Companies are looking at their ability to get into and out of the community, even on small planes," he said. "When you take that away, the community becomes much less attractive from an economic development perspective."

Quest Diagnostics Inc. bases a fleet of corporate planes in Berks. Albert A. Murrer III, the company's aviation director, said it's here because of what the Reading airport provides.

"It's the most friendly airport in the Northeast," he said. "If we grow, we will grow here. It's a great place to live, and the cost of living (in Berks) is low enough to keep qualified people here."

Robert DeTurck, general manager of American Flight Services -- one of three corporate transport companies based at the airport -- is more direct.

The airport is about as friendly as it gets -- from costs to accessibility -- and business will go elsewhere without it, he said.

"And with no business, Berks will turn into a great big housing suburb of Philadelphia," he said.

Taxi, please?

A new breed of cheap planes -- called very light jets -- won't create a new air taxi service. That already exists.

"It's already utilized every day to pick up or drop off executives," said DeTurck.

But the cheap planes will cut purchase and operating costs -- and, thus, fares.

"Will it ever be cheap enough for the average mom and pop? I don't know," DeTurck said. "I don't know if anybody can predict."

But very light jets need very short runways to make very long trips, allowing them to travel halfway across the country from one small airport to another, bypassing the congested hubs.

That means they can travel from Reading or Pottstown directly to, say, Gastonia, N.C., bypassing the major airlines' crowded hubs at Philadelphia and Charlotte.

Aviation industry officials have said the taxi fares may be higher than airline coach fares, but the savings in time and confusion will make up for it.

Gone with the wind

Commuter service began at Reading Regional in 1941 and grew over the years to more than a dozen flights a day, using 36-passenger planes to Boston, Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.

It began as a side operation for Reading Aviation Services, but later operated on its own as Suburban Airlines.

It was sold to the predecessor of USAirways in 1989 and operated as its Allegheny Airlines commuter service, then as US Airways Express.

But Allegheny began using smaller planes, flights dwindled, passenger numbers declined, and the 2001 terrorist attacks ravaged the airlines. Service to Reading ended altogether in 2004.

The lack of commuter service has hurt tourism a bit.

The Greater Reading Convention & Visitors Bureau said it can draw regional conventions because participants can drive here. But it can't draw national conventions without commuter air service.

The lack also has hurt the airport's image, and removed one of the reasons for its existence. But the city, the county and the airport authority have never considered closing it.

Airport manager Terry P. Sroka agrees with DeTurck and others that the chance of bringing commuter service back to Reading is slim. They've been trying, but financially struggling airlines want guaranteed passengers.

"They're all looking for incentives and funding, and these pockets are pretty empty," Sroka said.

If Berks wants commuter service, DeTurck said, it's best bet is a train to Philadelphia.

No reincarnation

What happens if an airport goes away?

The answer is they never return: They're too expensive to build from scratch and too controversial to get zoning and planning approvals, said Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials.

The New Jersey Department of Transportation recently bought the development rights at three private airports and is working on two more purchases.

Spokeswoman Erin Phalon said the goal is to preserve the airport land. New Jersey doesn't want the owners of struggling airports to sell out to developers for housing or commercial projects.

"Keeping an airport in place, even if usage is minimal, allows for a more active airport in the future," Phalon said.

"They're a nonrenewable resource," said Gearhart of Pennsylvania's aviation bureau.

If Reading Regional does nothing else, Gearhart said, it provides 600 acres of wellmaintained open space that won't become a mall or a housing development.

Fly-over country

With more than 125,000 takeoffs and landings a year to handle, air traffic controllers at the airport aren't sleeping.

That's an average of a takeoff or landing every three minutes for the crew to handle in the tower, whic is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to midnight. There are four controllers on duty most of the time.

But airport traffic is only half the work, said tower manager Theodore Johnson.

The tower also has responsibility for planes flying over the region, and those total about the same as the airport operations, Johnson said.

"A lot of people think that because there are no commuters, there are no planes at Reading Regional," Johnson said.

Millionaires' garages

In addition to corporate use, the airport is a base for dozens of privately owned general aviation aircraft, ranging from single-engine Cessnas to twin-engine craft that cost millions.

Many are housed in so-called T-hangars at the airport -- often derided as garages for millionaires.

"I kind of like having millionaires in Berks County," said Setley, the airport authority chairman. "I don't want them to go somewhere else. Their presence enhances the county."

And that, he said, is yet another reason an airport is important even if it doesn't have commuter service.

"It still enhances the quality of life here," he said.

Asking why have an airport without commuter service, he said, is like asking why have a baseball stadium if Reading doesn't have a major league team?

"Reading and Berks County have suffered enough losses to get an inferiority complex," he said. "Are they ready for more if we give up our airport ?"

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