Pa. airport leads new coalition addressing commercial air service issue
MONTOURSVILLE – Williamsport Regional Airport is leading a new coalition representing small airports that have a lost significant percentage, if not all, daily commercial air service since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restoring Essential Service to Our Rural Economies (RESTORE) will be working with Congress and the Biden Administration to promote changes in the 2023 FAA reauthorization bill to better support rural and small community airports, spokesman Richard Howell, executive director of the Williamsport Regional Airport, said Friday.
The Williamsport airport has been without commercial service since American Airlines pulled out Sept. 30, 2021 after a year of operation.
Any time a rural community is trying to retain or attract business air service is vital, said Tom Freeman, the director of aviation at the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport in New York. That airport lost significant service when United Airlines pulled out in 2020.
“Our small and rural community airports are the main economic driver for our regions and airports like ours are getting hit worst and first,” Howell said.
“Our community was growing and attracting new businesses, building upon the success of our popular border crossing with Mexico, which is a main commercial artery between our two countries”, said John Sheedy, city manager of Del Rio, Texas.
“But when we unexpectedly lost daily air service a few months ago we found there were few resources from the federal government we could tap into.”
More than a dozen airports across the country, mainly in rural and small communities, have lost all daily air service since the COVID-19 pandemic and more than 50 have lost at least 50 percent of service, the coalition notes.
This occurred despite the government providing major airlines more than $54 billion in COVID-related support, it points out.
The Essential Air Service (EAS) and Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) are two programs vital to ensuring air-service to rural and smaller communities, according to the coalition.
Changes made to EAS during the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization effectively closed off that program to airports that want to join it and SCASD has an annual budget of only $15 million, it points out.
With the FAA up for reauthorization this year, RESTORE says it will urge Congress to reopen EAS for a five-year window for airports currently ineligible, providing they can show significant air service loss since 2020.
Additionally, it says it is pushing to increase funding for the SCASD to better meet the demand on the program.
“[Essential Air Service] would be a lifeboat for our community but we need Congress to update the program so that communities like Del Rio aren’t being punished for legislation created over a decade ago,” Sheedy said.
U.S. Reps. Dan Meuser, a Republican whose district includes Williamsport, and David Trone, D-Maryland, introduced the bi-partisan Essential Air Service Reform Act that would reopen the program for three years.
U.S. Sens. John Tester, D-Montana, and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, have introduced the Small Community Air Service Act that would provide more funding for the SCASD program.
“These bills are an excellent start and the RESTORE coalition looks forward to working with other members of Congress in the upcoming FAA reauthorization to promote these changes,” Howell said. “Our regions need this.”
Other airports and several other entities are expected to join the coalition, he said.
The Williamsport community has been attempting without success to attract a commercial carrier to the airport.
A day does not go by that someone does not say they need local air service for business purposes, Jason Fink, president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, said. It is not efficient having to drive to another airport, he said.
The Williamsport airport remains fully operational for general aviation and the control tower is staffed.