Backers say Aviation Hub is an Economic Engine for Reading

The airport still handles more than 125,000 corporate and general aviation flights a year.

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.

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