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.

With the loss of Hooters Air, the passenger figures for this year will be lower, Centini wrote in the application.

During its five months of operation, Hooters carried 7,757 passengers to the Florida destinations of Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and St. Petersburg/Clearwater and Myrtle Beach, S.C. The charter airline associated with the Hooters restaurant chain cut short its 11-month contract in March, citing internal financial problems.

The airport spent $246,875 of a $625,000 grant from 2004 on Hooters Air. The other $378,125 went to Northwest Airlines. Luzerne and Lackawanna counties each contributed $125,000 and the airport added $25,000 for a total of $900,000 in combined funds. Northwest continues to fly the route with two daily departures.

A portion of that grant was intended to keep Vacation Express flying beyond its six-month contract. The airline was having financial troubles and had notified the airport it was stopping service to Orlando by the time the grant was approved in August 2004. It carried 10,626 passengers over the length of the contract.

The counties provided the bulk of funding for Vacation Express, but cut off the money at the end of its contract in September 2004. The airline received more than $800,000 in airport and county subsidies.

While airports are competing for airlines, they are also competing among themselves for a share of the $10 million in federal funds available this year through the program. Up to 40 grants could be awarded this summer as the department reviews the scores of applications submitted from airports nationwide. Federal law mandates that no more than four airports from a state can receive grants.

Last year the Bradford Regional Airport received $220,000 and the Williamsport Regional Airport, $500,000 in grants. The year before that the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport secured a $600,000 grant and the DuBois-Jefferson County Airport received $400,000.

Besides Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, five other airports in the state have applied this year.

The closest applicant, the Lehigh Valley International Airport near Allentown, is asking for $1 million. It is served by Allegiant Air, one of the low-cost airlines Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is courting.

Allegiant of Las Vegas, Nev. and CQ, a startup based in Easton, wrote letters of interest that were attached to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's application.

USA 3000, based in Newtown Square and affiliated with Apple Vacations, did not supply a letter.

Subsidies do not guarantee a carrier will commit to providing service, said Scott Tyra, director of planning for Allegiant.

He acknowledged talking to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The letter he submitted to accompany the airport's application said the airline is "carefully assessing the market. One of the issues we will consider is the market's ability to broadly support Allegiant, and we view the use of funds such as those available from this grant to be important indicators of a community's commitment."

The airline has gone to airports that have and have not offered incentives, he said.

"We look really hard at airport cost," such as landing fees, ground handling services and space rental, Tyra said.

In the case of CQ Air, the funding "will almost guarantee" service originating from the airline's proposed hub at Harrisburg International Airport, wrote Mike Adams, senior project manager for the airline.

Adams was out of the office traveling and unavailable for comment.

"This Grant would provide CQ Airlines the incentives designed to stimulate our desire to initiate service to new (origin and destination) markets from (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport) that might otherwise not be serviced should the incentives not be available," he wrote.

Copyright (c) 2006, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Times Leader

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