Nov. 15--Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Allen Biehler stood underneath a banner proclaiming "Great Rates are Closer Than You Think" at Harrisburg International Airport Monday and urged Pennsylvanians to use their local airports.
Biehler was launching a $200,000 campaign to promote the state's 15 commercial airports.
Billboards will go up for three months in the Harrisburg, Erie, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Allentown areas, PennDOT spokesman Kirk Wilson said. Radio ads will run for four weeks.
And Biehler unveiled the new Web site, IflyPa.com, which helps Pennsylvanians calculate the advantages of using their local airport.
For instance, the Web site calculates that travelers leaving Hershey for a one-week vacation could save $112.33 in driving and parking costs by using HIA instead of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They also would drive 178 fewer miles and save 2 hours and 58 minutes.
Most Pennsylvania airports offer a shorter drive, closer parking and quicker security lines, Biehler said.
But at HIA, the state's marketing campaign comes up against a couple of obstacles. HIA's top four airlines are either in, or have just recently emerged from, bankruptcy, resulting in fewer flights and smaller planes.
Consequently, HIA had 65,000 fewer seats for sale on departing flights in the first nine months of this year. Airport officials blame that decline for a corresponding 3.43 percent decline in passenger traffic during the same period.
HIA marketing director Scott Miller hasn't spent about $200,000 of his advertising budget this year because flights out of the airport are full for the most part. He's waiting to have more flights and more seats to fill.
Nevertheless, Miller said, he still welcomed the state's efforts.
"They had to pick a time. It's a statewide initiative," he said.
Then there's the fare issue.
"For years Pennsylvania airports have been criticized for having higher fares," Biehler acknowledged.
But, he said, last year the average Pennsylvania airfare was 26 percent less than it was in 2000 and "all signs are pointing to additional savings in the years to come."
This year, the average Pennsylvania airfare dropped slightly below the national average, Biehler said.
Miller noted that "airlines set fares based upon a lot of different factors," including how far in advance tickets are reserved.
Between 1,500 and 1,800 people a day fly out of HIA. "They found good fares. Otherwise, they wouldn't be flying out of here," he said.
Yet air travelers routinely complain that HIA's fares are considerably higher than those at BWI.
Biehler said he has been in talks with America West, a low-cost airline that recently merged with US Airways, the dominant carrier at HIA, and he hopes the merged airline will lower its fares here.
"The problem is we don't have enough low-cost seats," HIA Aviation Director Fred Testa said. "The old US Airways management had allowed fares to go up" at HIA.
Testa said he is "actively engaged" in negotiations with more than one low-cost carrier, but "it takes some time."
Building the larger terminal, which opened last year, was the first step because there weren't enough gates in the old terminal to attract new carriers, Testa said.
Meanwhile, airlines have been contending with bankruptcies and soaring fuel costs.
"The airline industry is turned upside down right now," observed Kim Schaller, chairman of the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which owns and operates HIA. "It's going to find its way. And then I think we're poised and ready. Hang in there with us."