Third Try a Charm for Small Pennsylvania Airport?

If the airport is successful with its latest request, more than $2.35 million in publicly funded subsidies would be provided to new airlines since 2004.

Again the director of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa., International Airport is asking the federal government for hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidize low-cost airlines considering service locally.

As in the past, the airport and its owners, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, also plan to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to the incentive package.

If the airport is successful with its latest request, more than $2.35 million in publicly funded subsidies would be provided to new airlines since 2004.

Financial problems grounded Vacation Express in 2004 and Hooters Air this year, the two previous low-cost airlines that received subsidies. The $475,000 requested this time around by airport director Barry Centini from the U.S. Department of Transportation is designed to fill the void left by Hooters and would drive down fares of the existing airlines.

Last month Centini, with the backing of the counties, applied for a grant through the department's Small Community Air Service Development Program. It's the second time in two years they've requested the federal funding that can be put to a variety of uses such as advertising, handling the aircraft on the ground and guaranteeing the airline covers the cost of flights.

Almost half of the $625,000 received in the 2004 grant funded the short-lived Hooters Air service. The remainder went to Northwest Airlines for its service to Detroit.

Centini did not return a message left with his office.

In the application he said the airport has had prior success with low-cost carriers based on the response by travelers and by existing airlines lowering fares in some markets. But he acknowledged, "Successfully retaining those carriers long-term has proven difficult."

The current grant request filed April 7 with the department says the money would be spent on either Allegiant Air or USA 3000 for direct flights to Orlando, Fla., and the start-up CQ Air for flights to its proposed hub at Harrisburg International Airport and other regional markets.

The application also says the counties will each contribute $62,500 and the airport will kick in $50,000 to complement the federal share. The combined $650,000 in airport, county and federal funds will go toward ground handling services for six months to be provided by Aviation Technologies Inc., based at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and to marketing new and existing service. In addition, the airport will waive landing fees for six months.

The airport expects that the money will spur competition and give a potential new low-cost carrier reason to stick around.

"From the successful implementation of these programs goals (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) anticipates a residual affect (sic) of reduced fares in some markets and a significantly increased level of service to at least 2 prime markets," Centini wrote.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is an ideal candidate for funding through the program, which targets airports with insufficient air carrier service or unreasonably high fares, according to the latest application. The document did not mention the airport's major expansion projects. The new $41.5 million terminal building will open on May 25.

Repeating nearly word-for-word the 2004 application, Centini wrote, "Air travelers using the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport pay among the highest fares of any similar sized airport in the country."

Compared to similarly sized markets with between 350,000 and 500,000 origin and destination passengers, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton ranks 10th out of 22, with an average one-way fare of $163. Montgomery, Ala. was the highest with a $187 average fare and St. Petersburg, Fla., the lowest with $95, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data contained in the application.

In 2005, the combined total of people boarding and disembarking planes at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was 439,189, according to the airport.

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