Hagerstown's extended runway just lacks carrier

The Baltimore Sun

Despite recently losing commercial service once supported by federal subsidies, Hagerstown Regional Airport marks the completion today of a $62 million project that extended its runway by 1,500 feet.

The lengthened 7,000-foot runway will allow fully loaded regional jets and charter planes to fly to places such as St. Louis or Atlanta, the airport's director, Carolyn S. Motz, said yesterday.

"Now we can do what they do at Reagan National, what any airport that has 7,000 feet of runway does," Motz said. Reagan National Airport's main runway is just under 6,900 feet, with Boeing 757s the largest planes flying there.

The problem is, the Western Maryland airport has no regularly scheduled commercial flights. In late September, after a federal subsidy expired, Air Midwest stopped the two 19-seat daily flights to Pittsburgh that it operated for US Airways.

It's a far cry from Hagerstown Regional Airport's heyday in the 1990s, when more than 35,000 passengers a year boarded flights to US Airways hubs in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Motz said. Fewer than 20 passengers a day flew Air Midwest from Hagerstown in 2006, down from nearly 40 a day in 2004.

"A lot of the carriers we had in the past went to regional jets, and we did not have the runway to accommodate them," Motz said.

Local and federal officials hope the runway expansion will create conditions for commercial service to again be independently profitable. But with fuel prices forcing airlines to rein in capacity growth, aviation consultants say Hagerstown will struggle to secure a new carrier.

"They're surrounded by some fairly large airports: BWI, Dulles and National," said Dave Swierenga, an AeroEcon consultant and former chief economist for the Air Transport Association. "There's just plenty of service from those other airports, making service from Hagerstown somewhat redundant."

The Hagerstown airport is one of many regional airports around the state in the process of expanding. Garrett County recently completed runway enhancements. Other expansions are planned in Carroll County, Easton and Salisbury, the only other airport in the state to offer commercial service outside of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Federal and state aviation dollars fund the bulk of those projects. In Hagerstown, they made up all but $3 million of the cost.

"Our preference is to make these kind of investments in expanding capacity, to make those airports attractive to multiple airlines, as opposed to subsidizing a single airline to serve them," said U.S. Transportation Department spokesman Brian Turmail.

Hagerstown and surrounding Washington County has a population of nearly 144,000, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimate. But Motz said the airport could pull passengers from a much wider area, including parts of Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania along the Interstate 81 corridor.

With Camp David no more than 10 miles away, Hagerstown is positioned to serve national as well as local interests, said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican who represents Western Maryland. Air Force One, a customized Boeing 747, has been landing at the airport for decades.

"The president can now bring his biggest planes in and land with safety," said Bartlett, who planned to attend today's ceremony. "It will now permit [defense contractors] to bring the largest planes in to embellish them."

Northrop Grumman Corp., Sierra Nevada Corp. and other defense contractors have on-site facilities, where military planes are outfitted with patrol systems.

Northrop's 140-employee Hagerstown plant services P-3C Orion naval patrol aircraft, said site manager Michael Deavers.

With the lengthened runway, such planes can take off with full loads of fuel and cargo to fly cross country, he said.

"It cuts down on planning and costs to get here," Deavers said.

But commercial service at Hagerstown has been tenuous for years. Air Midwest first threatened to pull out in early 2005, after taking over an unsubsidized service for Allegheny Airlines less than a year earlier. A federal subsidy -- $855,000 in the last U.S. fiscal year -- kept it flying until it expired Sept. 30.

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill to reinstate a $600,000 Hagerstown subsidy and others covered by the Essential Air Service program until the delayed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill is passed. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrats who co-sponsored the legislation, expect the measure to pass in the House.

"We are very optimistic that will happen," said Susan Sullam, a spokeswoman for Cardin's office. "It's important that the Western Maryland region have air service for continued economic growth."


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