County commissioners gave the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce the green light yesterday to ask local businesses whether they would support scheduled air service between Westminster and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
"I think we should gather the data to see if there's enough interest to support airline service between Carroll and BWI," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "It wouldn't make sense to move ahead if this is something where we're spending money and spinning our wheels."
The commissioners must let the state know by July 31 whether Carroll is interested in competing for state dollars to establish commuter service.
The chamber is expected to survey 30 to 50 businesses and area travel agencies to see how many people would use the service, then send the data to Gary Horst, who oversees Carroll County Regional Airport, north of Westminster.
"Once we have the information in hand, we'll share it with the Maryland Aviation Administration and see what they say," said Horst, the county's director of enterprise and recreation services. "At this point, it's not clear how many passengers we would need to make this successful. We'll know a lot more after the surveys come back and we speak with the state."
Horst said he expects to have results within 10 days.
Several communities, including Cumberland, Hagerstown and Frederick, have expressed interest in establishing regularly scheduled flights to BWI. Legislation signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in May requires the state to give a handful of regional airports financial assistance to start such service next year.
"We'd like to get this service up and running around the first of the year," said Bruce F. Mundie, director of the state's Office of Regional Aviation Assistance.
The Maryland Aviation Administration estimates that outlying communities could see a tenfold increase in the economic impact of their regional airports if they offer service to BWI. Carroll's airport operates at a loss. Last year, it cost taxpayers about $83,000.
"We're trying to determine which communities can support this service," Mundie said. He hopes to draft a proposal in the fall.
The governor has set aside about $1 million for the initiative in fiscal 2001, which began Saturday. Funding could increase to $2 million in each of the next two years.
To make the commuter service an attractive alternative to driving, ticket prices would have to be about $50 each way. To keep prices down, federal grants, contributions from businesses that use the service and incentives offered by local airports would be needed.
"The MAA will probably learn that there won't be enough people to support a commuter route from Carroll," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "But if the survey shows there is enough interest, maybe a private company would do it."