MARTINSBURG - From areas surrounding the Altoona-Blair County Airport, 323 people will board a flight daily, an ongoing study estimates.
But of the 323, only about 18 - less than 6 percent - will board at the Martinsburg-area facility.
"Obviously, they're using other airports," said Jeffrey Hartz of Mead & Hunt, a Texas-based engineering and architectural firm with expertise in airline management.
While State College and Baltimore-Washington International airports might be good guesses as to where area residents are heading for flights, they weren't the most popular destination.
State College gets about 22 percent of the 323 daily passengers for a second-place ranking, the study showed. BWI, drawing about 13 percent of the 323 daily passengers, came in third.
The biggest portion of the 323 passengers - 41 percent - are driving to Pittsburgh, Hartz said.
That finding and related information are part of a New Regional Airport Service Plan also known as the PIT Connector Project, a plan that calls for creating daily flight service to Pittsburgh's airport from 13 regional airports, including the Altoona-Blair County and the John P. Murtha Johnstown Cambria County Airport.
The other airports included in the study are in Latrobe, Bradford, DuBois, Erie, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Allentown, State College, Franklin, Scranton and Williamsport.
Mead & Hunt started working on the plan last year when it was commissioned by the Allegheny County Airport Authority on behalf of the Pennsylvania Air Service Committee, a subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Aviation Advisory Committee to Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Department of Transportation.
The goal of the plan is to outline route, schedule, competitive pricing and related arrangements that could make the PIT Connector a viable option for interest airlines and serve airports. The goal also calls for a service that could be sustained without subsidy from the Essential Air Service program, a federal program with an uncertain future because of its expense.
While the Altoona-Blair County Airport used to offer flights to Pittsburgh, that service was abandoned in November 2005 because of a decline in passengers, which never rebounded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack by terrorists. Part of the decline was based on ticket prices at that time, when potential passengers were choosing to drive to the Baltimore airport for lower fares.
The Altoona-Blair County Airport tried to address that beginning in mid-2004 by introducing flights to the Washington-Dulles International Airport, a destination that would mean lower ticket fares and more connections.
But after US Airways dropped Pittsburgh as a hub in 2005, discount airline carriers moved in and started offering lower fares, some of which remain available, depending on the travel route and airline.
Other than ticket prices, why are potential passengers driving to Pittsburgh, Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority member Gary Orner asked Hartz while recently reviewing the study's research with the authority.
Hartz replied that the amount of flights, schedules and connections are factors, especially for business travelers.
"Business travelers don't want to wait," Hartz said.
From the Altoona-Blair County Airport, passengers have a choice of three flights daily, currently 5:30 a.m., 10:48 a.m. and 7:04 p.m., via 33-seat Saab aircraft, to the Washington-Dulles International Airport. From there, passengers have non-stop flights to 125-plus domestic and international destinations.
The Pittsburgh airport, meanwhile, offers non-stop flights to 36 destinations.
to fly to Pittsburgh?
Hartz suggested that if the PIT Connector project becomes a reality, it would probably initiate service from the Altoona-Blair County Airport for a $50 roundtrip ticket.
That price probably would be increased later, Hartz said, but initially, it would be set low enough to attract people driving to Pittsburgh for flights.
Lanny Ross, who chairs the Altoona-Blair County Airport Authority, said the initiative will need a marketing effort. But Eric Buncher, manager of planning services for the Allegheny County Airport Authority who accompanied Hartz to a recent airport authority meeting, offered his doubt in response to Ross' recommendation.
"With a price like that, you won't need to do a lot of marketing to get the planes full," Buncher said.
Ross told Buncher he would respectfully disagree.
"We have competitive fares, but no one knows we're here," Ross said.
Online ticket options indicate roundtrip flights between Martinsburg and Washington-Dulles can be booked for $160 to $180, depending on timing. The price increases with additional destinations.
Over the years, the airport authority has had limited money to advertise flights and fares. Several years ago, it secured a state grant that paid for some local advertising as part of an effort to help small airports build ridership.
Airport Manager Tim Hite, who took on that role in November, has told the authority that its budget has no money available for local advertising.
Silver Airways, based in Fort Lauderdale, started providing daily passenger service on Aug. 1, 2012, at the Altoona-Blair County and the John P. Murtha Cambria County airports. Its contract for that service, at $3.99 million annually, was awarded through the federal Essential Air Service program and runs through Aug. 1, 2014.
With that contract up for renewal next year, Hart recommended the airport authority begin now to look for some options to build service. Flights to Pittsburgh would draw in passengers driving there now, but Hart said he would advise against offering only flights to Pittsburgh.
"Dulles is a premier international gateway hub," Hart said. "You wouldn't want to lose that."
As an example of what might be possible, Hart mentioned the success that Cape Air, headquarted in Hyannis, Mass., has had with its 55-minute daily flight from the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport in southeast Missouri to St. Louis. A regional airport that once had 3,000 passengers, Cape Girardeau saw ridership climb to 11,746 passengers in 2012.
In a story published in January in the Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau Regional Airport Manager Bruce Loy credited Cape Air for the turnaround.
"They are dependable, they are low cost, they are really everything we need for a good service between here and St. Louis," Loy said.
Cape Air uses a fleet of Cessna 402 airplanes which accommodate nine passengers. It makes four flights on each weekday and two on weekends - for a $50 one-way ticket when booked on Cape Air's website.
Another airport attracting local residents in search of flights is the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport outside Latrobe, southeast of Pittsburgh. In February 2011, Spirit Airlines introduced flights to Fort Lauderdale. It later added flights to Myrtle Beach and Orlando, and as of mid-June, introduced flights to Dallas.
David Helsel of Altoona, who owns CTR Supply of Duncansville, said he and his wife, Janet, like to fly out of the Latrobe airport to Florida, where they own a second home, because of the direct flights and the ticket fares.
"It's not as close as Blair County's airport, but we could never get the fares from there that we get out of Latrobe," he said.
Spirit advertises discounted fares - some times as low as $9 - for frequent fliers who join a club with an annual membership fee of $60. Being part of that club also entitles members to receive messages from the airline as to when it's offering discounted fares.
"My brother and his wife got an alert about a fare to Fort Lauderdale," Helsel said. "They ended up with [roundtrip] tickets for $40 each, and they could go when they wanted."
Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling, liaison to the airport authority, said idea of again offering flights to Pittsburgh needs more research.
"To me, it's still in conceptual stage, and it's all contingent upon: Is this what the public wants?" Meling said. "If it's not going to be utilized, there's no point in doing it."
While the study indicated that the Altoona-Blair County Airport is losing 41 percent of potential passengers to the Pittsburgh airport, Meling said she would be interested in learning more about that calculation.
"My experience, and the people I talk to indicate they're going to State College or BWI," she said.
Airport authority member Herb Bolger said he also wondered about the accuracy of the 41 percent figure, especially since Pittsburgh lost its designation as a hub airport and no longer has as many flight destinations.
"I think our service to Dulles is a superior service. It's a gateway to so many other locations," Bolger said.
Hart agreed while encouraging the authority to consider some other options.
"Is Pittsburgh a great connecting hub comparable to Dulles?" he asked. "No. But the majority of your traffic is willing to drive to Pittsburgh looking for lower ticket prices and better flight schedules ... and this is your airport on the line."
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.