After a year of setbacks, the Williamsport Regional Airport is now faced with its biggest one this year – the loss of service from American Airlines, its sole commercial airline option.
While American has said it won’t reconsider its decision until 2022, airport Executive Director Richard Howell added that the earliest another airline may come to the region is April of next year.
January, February and March are historically the worst months for air travel in the region and the Williamsport airport often loses service in those months each year.
“We are working on it,” Howell said. “We know what we need to do.”
The airport’s average daily screenings already were below average, according to a study performed at the end of 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic increased those low screening numbers enough to make American Airlines temporarily suspend service in August, just two days after announcing it would switch Williamsport’s connecting hub from Philadelphia to Charlotte, North Carolina.
In 2019, Howell was brought in by the Williamsport Municipal Airport Authority specifically to help the airport grow and improve its marketability to other airlines. Those goals seem more daunting now than ever, but Howell is optimistic that the airport is not in as dire a situation as some may think.
Of its roughly $1.2 million annual budget, the airport only receives a small portion from the commercial airline. The bulk of its budget is made up of private business rentals, concession fees, general aviation and other non-aeronautical revenue streams.
“While the carrier is very important for the community and the airport, when it came right down to it they weren’t paying a whole lot as far as our budget,” Howell said. “It’s not a devastating financial event to the airport that the airline has left.”
The airport was granted $10.2 million in grant funds through the CARES Act, according to Howell. This is enough to keep it running for four years, he said.
While no airport authority employees have been laid off, roughly 12 Transportation Security Administration personnel will need to find new work. Most had already been suspended due to COVID-19: however, they were anticipating coming back soon.
“It’s very disappointing for them,” Howell said.
The airport has not been without controversy over the years. The construction of a new terminal raised questions about the need for upgrades. The roughly $13 million terminal was largely funded through state and federal grants, but the county also contributed a $2 million match to a $1 million First Community Foundation Partnership grant.
At the time, the large sum was hotly contested but eventually approved by county commissioners after the airport authority argued the new facility would be crucial in bringing more airlines to the airport.
No one could have predicted the impact of COVID-19. Despite a sizable backstep in the efforts to bring more airlines to the airport, a new terminal was always going to be needed, he said.
“I would hate to be sitting here without an airline … and have to maintain a 70-year-old building at the same time,” Howell said. “If you are going to have an airport, you need to invest in it.”
Howell also said the airport doesn’t use any taxpayer money in its annual budget.