Bradford, Venango airports may lose federal subsidies

Order jeopardizes commercial service to Cleveland

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Officials at two smaller Western Pennsylvania airports expect to appeal a tentative federal order that would effectively end their commercial air service.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday issued the order, ending federal subsidies of flights at 13 small airports, including Bradford Regional Airport and Venango Regional Airport, which serves Franklin and Oil City.

Both airports would lose subsidized service connecting them to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Three daily flights operate from Bradford and two from Venango.

Airports have 20 days to appeal or seek an exemption.

"We got the order [Thursday]. It would really hurt the economic vitality of the region," said Thomas C. Frungillo, director of Bradford Regional Airport.

"I'm not an economic development expert, but intuitively, air service is very important to a community to attract businesses and retain businesses," said O.C. Bell, manager of Venango Regional.

The subsidies are paid under the Essential Air Service program, which was designed to preserve commercial air service to smaller communities after the airlines were deregulated. It provides monthly payments to air carriers who operate flights at those airports.

As of November, Silver Airways was getting $1.9 million per year in subsidies to operate three daily flights from Bradford to Cleveland, and $1.3 million for flights from Venango Regional to Cleveland, according to DOT reports. Nationwide, the program paid out $219 million for the year.

The DOT ruling applies to airports that are within 175 miles of large or medium-sized hub airports and that averaged fewer than 10 passenger emplanements over the previous fiscal year. Bradford averaged 6.9 emplanements a day and Venango 5.0.

An analysis of DOT data showed that the subsidy per emplanement (defined as arriving plus departing passengers, divided by two) was more than $800 at both airports.

Lancaster Airport, with a 6.3-passenger daily average, also would lose its subsidy under the ruling. The government paid more than $1,200 per emplanement there last year.

Mr. Frungillo said he didn't know how long an appeals process would take or when the service would actually end if the airport is unsuccessful.

Both he and Mr. Bell said they would rather have service to Pittsburgh than Cleveland.

If Silver Airways would fly there, the service would easily attract 40 to 50 passengers per day, well above the DOT threshold for continued funding, Mr. Frungillo said. Pittsburgh is a destination city and its oil and gas industries and hospitals would also attract travelers, he said.

High fares, flight delays and cancellations and the Cleveland destination are reasons more people haven't used the service, he said. "Instead of penalizing airports they should hold the airlines accountable."

"I get phone calls every week from people who wish we still flew to Pittsburgh, as we did when US Airways Express was flying. Pittsburgh seems to be our natural connecting city," Mr. Bell said.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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