Shuttles planned to link airports; BWI patrons to fly to Western Md., St. Mary's County; Assembly OKs test; Service important for business travel and development; Transportation


Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab's already long business day didn't end when her flight from Chicago arrived in Baltimore at 10 p.m. Tuesday. Ahead of her was a 2 1/2-hour drive home to Cumberland.

"If there had been a flight from Baltimore, I might have gotten home by 11 p.m. instead of 1 a.m.," said Hurwitz-Schwab, human resources director for children's clothing manufacturer S. Schwab Co.

Business travelers such as Hurwitz-Schwab and companies in remote corners of Maryland could find future trips easier if a new trial program to subsidize air shuttles between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Cumberland, Hagerstown and St. Mary's County succeeds. The General Assembly agreed last week to spend up to $5 million on a three-year test -- the first of its type in the nation.

Whether those flights take off will be determined over the next few months as airlines decide if they're interested and the details are hammered out. The project is a three-year test to determine if the air shuttles can survive on their own.

"Some have no question it will be self-sustaining," said David L. Blackshear, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration. "From my perspective, we don't have any of that information."

The state will poll each community on the type of service it wants, then approach the airlines. Nine carriers have indicated interest. Local support may be sought to bolster state dollars. "It's one of the answers that needs to be found for the development of rural America," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who sponsored the bill with the Glendening administration.

The business cost of being isolated is significant. The Schwab company charters a plane at least once a week out of the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport when groups of workers travel. Otherwise, employees who live in Cumberland -- which is midway between Baltimore and Pittsburgh -- drive to BWI.

"The reason that hooking up with Baltimore is so exciting is that the Baltimore cost of air travel is one of the lowest in the nation," said Jim Stahl, chairman of the Potomac Highlands Airport Authority, which oversees the Cumberland airport. The average cost of a flight out of Pittsburgh is $500, compared with $275 through BWI, he said.

"It matters if you have a bunch of salesmen," Stahl said. "Ten tickets a month, round trip -- it can mean $50,000 difference a year for a small business." The state is aiming for a maximum shuttle price of $50 one way.

"We've had businesses tell our recruiters that they couldn't consider Cumberland because air service went to Pittsburgh instead of Baltimore," said Bud Willetts, head of the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce. "It's a real shot in the arm to existing businesses, and also opens doors to us."

In Hagerstown, 30 years of air service to BWI ended in 1998 when US Airways ended its four daily shuttles to Baltimore. The only service remaining at Hagerstown, like Cumberland, goes to Pittsburgh. Beyond the cost difference, "BWI is the much preferred hub for virtually anybody traveling in this region," said Fred Teeter, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. "People have been flying in and out of it for years. They know it. They're comfortable with it."

Hagerstown Regional Airport serves Allegheny Power Systems, one of the state's few Fortune 500 companies, as well as Citicorp offices with 2,600 employees and Mack Truck Inc., where 1,500 people work.

Although one report predicts that the Hagerstown airport would supply about 2,681 shuttle passengers a year to BWI, airport manager Carolyn Motz believes that demand is about 10 times higher. The airport is a mile from the Pennsylvania border and serves four states and 13 counties.

"A lot of our passengers who are traveling south are leaking out to Reagan National and Dulles and Harrisburg," she said. "They don't see the sense in going north to Pittsburgh first."

Altogether, the shuttles would serve about 16,000 passengers a year on three to five flights a day from each of the Maryland outposts, according to aviation administration estimates. If the plan goes forward, the flights would probably begin by early next year, officials said. The type of planes to be used is up for discussion, but they could range from single-engine Cessnas carrying six to eight passengers to twin-engine turboprops that hold 15 to 30.

At St. Mary's County's airport, which has never had commuter air service, the project is expected to boost business for nearby defense contractors.

"Basically, what people do now is fly into Dulles or National or BWI and rent a car and drive down. This will allow them to make their connections a lot easier and possibly turn their trips around in a day."

Whether the three-year test will be adequate to prove that the shuttles make business sense is a point of debate. "I'm a little bit disappointed we limited it to three," said Taylor. "I don't know how big a hurdle that's going to be."

But Blackshear said it will be sufficient.

"I'm not sure the consultants would agree with me, but I think it's adequate. The service will either sink or swim on its own."

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