Hagerstown to lose only airline

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Hagerstown area faces its first disruption in commercial air service in more than a half-century because the single airline serving the regional airport there has decided to pull out.

Air Midwest Inc., operated for US Airways Express, plans to stop its four daily flights to Pittsburgh in March, the manager of Hagerstown Regional Airport said yesterday.

Air Midwest's Beechcraft 1900D turboprop aircraft carry 19 passengers, but the planes have been less than half full in recent years - carrying a daily total of no more than about 40 people, according to the airport.

Hagerstown has faced such a dilemma in the past, but the airport, unable to accommodate more modern regional jets, is finding it increasingly difficult to land a turboprop replacement.

Last year, the Washington County-owned airport began the task of extending its runway to attract a regional jet carrier, but that project won't be complete until 2007.

"It happens from time to time, maybe six to 12 times since 1949," airport manager Carolyn S. Motz said of past changes in carriers. "There's never been an interruption in service. It's usually seamless, although it takes us a little while to get a carrier to fill the route."

A spokeswoman for US Airways, on its second commuter partner in Hagerstown in a couple of years, confirmed the stoppage, but wouldn't elaborate on plans.

Air Midwest and its parent company, Mesa Air Group, didn't return phone calls. Air Midwest operates on a contract with US Airways Group Inc., which is negotiating with employees and creditors to restructure itself under bankruptcy protection.

Area business and leisure travelers have not exactly flocked to the Air Midwest planes. They fly four times a day to Pittsburgh, where they connect to other US Airways destinations.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and since financially troubled US Airways has scaled back its service in Pittsburgh, interest there in flights from Hagerstown has waned.

Travelers have, instead, driven to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport and Harrisburg International Airport, all less than 75 miles away.

"Have some used it? Yes. In vast numbers? No," Philip Kelly, director of public affairs for Citicorp Credit Services Inc., one of Washington County's largest employers, said of the Air Midwest option. "We're anxious to see what happens when the airport runway is extended. What our people want is more options."

Economic development officials in Washington County share the sentiment. As more companies expand in the county, demand has grown for air service closer to home.

The regional airport does offer charter service and room for corporate executives to park their own planes. But a core of workers and leisure travelers has always enjoyed some commercial service and would like to see it grow, said Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Troxell didn't think the loss of service would hamper economic development because other international airports that offer direct service are about an hour's drive away. But he, too, was enthusiastic about plans for a longer runway.

In the past year, companies including a division of Home Depot Inc., Mack Trucks Inc. and a local tractor supply company have announced new or expanding facilities in the region. Others, including Citicorp and First Data Merchant Services Corp., have thrived.

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