Lehigh Floats Idea of Starting New Local Carrier

Lehigh Valley International Airport discussed on Wednesday relaunching a local airline as a way to boost sagging air traffic.

A committee of the airport's board reconsidered the viability of Lehigh Valley Air, which flew briefly in 2005, at the request of one board member, Randy Uhler, who said boosting air service at LVIA is an urgent issue. The committee took no action Wednesday.

The airport originally pursued the venture so that LVIA would have more control over the flights it could offer. LVIA launched Lehigh Valley Air with flights to St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale after the collapse of a discount carrier left the airport without service to the two Florida cities.

The airport's management hoped the venture would serve as a catalyst to win service from other carriers. After two months, Hooters Air took over the routes, and flew them until last year, when the airline ceased operating. One route is now handled by Allegiant Air.

The airport's top official, George Doughty, said relaunching local air service is worth studying. But he said LVIA would need more than $1 million to restart the service, and probably would sustain losses in the first six months to a year of operation.

The airport would probably have to charge higher ticket prices than larger airlines, said Doughty, who prepared a financial analysis of the airline's relaunch.

"I just wanted to let you know the complexities of this, and that it's anything but a slam dunk," Doughty said. "This is sort of a reality check. It doesn't mean we can't do it."

Uhler, who was appointed to the board of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority this year, was undeterred.

"People are getting impatient, as I am, as to where this airport is going," Uhler said.

LVIA must take aggressive steps to increase flights, Uhler said. The airport's traffic fell 5 percent last year to 788,511, its lowest passenger volume in more than 10 years. It was the second consecutive year of falling traffic. Uhler said the airport should pursue Lehigh Valley Air despite the high costs.

"I don't like facts and figures," Uhler said in an interview after the meeting, in reference to the financial analysis. "I go with my gut feeling. My intuition is, if we persevere long enough, it will work."

Uhler's comments about the airport's performance echoed concerns expressed recently by both county executives. Last week, Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham sent a letter to members of the volunteer airport board to communicate his interest in becoming more engaged in how airport decisions are made.

In an interview, Cunningham said it's possible a large part of the problem is the declining traffic that's affecting all small airports. But he said he wants to learn more about current operations to see if it's time to take a different tack.

He and Northampton County Executive John Stoffa have appointed new members to the 19-person board in the hopes that turnover will bring new perspectives and approaches to running the airport.

"I share the concerns a lot of other people have about the airport," Stoffa said in an interview this month. "I think a lot of people would like to see it do better."

Neither county gives operating money to the airport. The airport board decided in the late 1990s that it wanted LVIA to become financially self-sufficient. Some longtime members of the board are against asking the counties for money.

The airport derives its operating budget from Federal Aviation Administration grants, terminal rents, fuel sales and services such as parking.

While the airport is run by the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, the two counties have paid little attention to the airport's operations until recently.

"Historically, county executives have made appointments to the board, and then pretty much forgot about it," Cunningham said.

Airport officials say they are sensitive to county executives' concerns about falling traffic. But they say traffic is back on the rise, and the airport is sound financially.

"When a business loses money, it's in trouble," said airport board Chairman Jim Seitzinger, who was not at the meeting Wednesday. "This business is not losing money."

He said the current management is doing everything possible to boost traffic.

Uhler's interest in reviving the service was met with a cautious reaction from other board members Wednesday. Glenn Walbert, for example, pointed out the airport started Lehigh Valley Air specifically to serve cities in Florida that are the top destinations of local travelers.

"At this point, we have Allegiant, and several routes to Florida," Walbert said. "With Lehigh Valley Air to Florida, at this point, you might have one destination so it won't have much of an impact."

LVIA, Doughty said, plans to apply for a federal grant that can be used to attract air service to the airport. In the past, he said LVIA has not received the grant because there have been no local matching funds. Doughty said the state has begun to offer matching funds.

LVIA has withstood recent setbacks. Promised service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., was canceled this month. The airport also recently lost its nonstop flights to Boston. Officials have approached Big Sky, which next month will become a contract carrier for Delta Airlines, about restarting the service to Boston.

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