U.S. to end federal flight subsidies to three regional Pennsylvania airports

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The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a tentative order ending federal subsidies of flights to three small Pennsylvania airports, a ruling that would effectively end commercial service at those facilities, according to two airport directors.

The order, issued Thursday and first reported by Politico, would abolish subsidies to 13 small U.S. airports, including those in Bradford, Franklin-Oil City and Lancaster. Airports have 20 days to appeal or seek an exemption.

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 Franklin-Oil City 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; Franklin-Oil City 5.0; and Lancaster 6.3.

Thomas C. Frungillo, director of Bradford Regional Airport, said the airport authority would appeal. "We got the order yesterday," he said. "It would really hurt the economic vitality of the region."

If the order stands, Bradford would have no more commercial flights, he said. It is not known how long an appeals process would take or when the service would actually end if the airport is unsuccessful.

Mr. Frungillo said the airport would rather have service to Pittsburgh than Cleveland, and 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. 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."

O.C. Bell, manager of Venango Regional Airport in Franklin, also said he expected an appeal. "I'm not an economic development expert but intuitively, air service is very important to a community to attract businesses and retain businesses," he said. The airport has two daily flights to Cleveland but also would prefer service to Pittsburgh, he said.

"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: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.

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