Grant to Shrink as Texas Residents Avoid Victoria Airport

Dec. 29 -- VICTORIA -- It's midday, and it's like a library at Victoria Regional Airport.

The only sounds come from the Fox News telecast in the lobby. No one is working at the Continental Connection counter, the Avis desk or the Payton's Place restaurant. The security checkpoint is closed, and no planes sit on the tarmac.

It's an odd scene for anyone used to flying out of big-city airports. And, increasingly, it's becoming foreign territory for Victoria residents themselves, who have given their airport a $1 million headache because they're flying out of other cities in droves.

"The issue is when you have multiple carriers that fly several nonstops from those cities and have low-cost carriers," said Larry Blackwell, Victoria's airport manager, who cited Austin and San Antonio as the main culprits drawing local passengers.

One problem is Victoria's location. At about an hour and a half from Corpus Christi and slightly more than two hours from Austin, San Antonio and Houston, it's big enough and isolated enough to justify its own airport. Then again, it's small enough and convenient enough to other airports to make driving-and-flying an easy call for many despite the free parking.

Blackwell said about 87,000 passengers will originate from Victoria in a given year, but historically only about 11,000 actually fly from his airport, just above the 10,000 needed to qualify for an annual $1 million in Airport Improvement Program federal grant money.

This year, Victoria Regional will finish with about 9,200 departing passengers, meaning it will instead be eligible for a $150,000 grant for smaller airports, a net loss of $850,000 worth of grant money.

Blackwell blames an unexpected schedule change in March by Continental, which eliminated a 6:10 a.m. flight.

"Most of the people that fly here are business fliers," Blackwell said. "With the 6:10 a.m. flight going away, that affected them in a bad way."

Continental Connection flights are operated by Manassas, Va.-based Colgan Air, but Continental Airlines sets the schedule. Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said the sudden schedule change was a "business decision."

"Our scheduling people continue to be in close contact with the community and the airport," Clark said. "They're constantly communicating with them, trying to assess what the needs are and that sort of thing. But the way the schedule is currently showing is two flights."

Colgan's 34-seat Saab 340 turboprops leave Victoria twice daily with one midmorning flight and one late-afternoon flight.

Blackwell confirmed he's stayed in touch with Continental but also is seeking other options, the most promising of which seems to be the possibility of periodic casino charter flights to Nevada.

"When you're 800 enplanements short, you look at it and go, 'That's just a few 737s to shore that up.' "

Of the 27 Texas airports that got AIP grants in fiscal 2006, Victoria was the only one anywhere close to the 10,000-enplanement mark, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. Even Ellington Field, the distant third among Houston airports, had nearly three times as many enplanements as Victoria Regional in 2004.

Passenger totals in a given year are used to determine eligibility for AIP money two years later.

The Victoria airport has enough money to cover continued upgrades, Blackwell said, although he doesn't want to miss out on the grant again in 2009.

Most of all, he doesn't want Victoria to someday lose its air access to the rest of the world altogether.

"It would be devastating for us, and we don't want that to happen," Blackwell said.

Copyright (c) 2006, Houston Chronicle.

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