As commercial service with American Airlines ended last week, talks were underway to bring United Airlines to the region by spring 2022.
That’s what Williamsport Regional Airport Executive Director Richard Howell hopes to see.
But fluctuations in air travel, recurring spikes of COVID-19 cases and the oncoming low travel months seem to be a constant thorn in the region’s quest for stable air service.
The airport’s relationship with American Airlines was tumultuous and, while the global provider may offer good service in some locations, it has historically been poor in Lycoming County, according to Howell.
“This market has always responded to service when the service has been good,” Howell said. “I’ve seen American (Airlines) provide great service. … they didn’t here.”
A history of cancellations and unreliable flights have turned people away from using the Williamsport airport over the years, according to Howell, but he added that previous leakage studies show a high volume of people in need of air service throughout the region.
The most recent cancellation of service, with the last flight leaving Williamsport on Sept. 30, is due to persistent COVID-19 spikes over the past few months, he said, as airlines across the globe see falling ticket sales. American Airlines left two other small airports last week in addition to Williamsport.
Howell said negotiations are underway to bring United Airlines to the Williamsport airport in the spring, with a connecting hub to Dulles, Virginia. This is not yet finalized.
The airport was awarded a $950,000 grant to subsidize an incoming airline, but Howell is hesitant to use those funds during the off season as it could mean throwing money away on empty airplanes.
“It’s a horrid time of year to try to begin air service,” Howell said, adding that January and February are the lowest months for air travel across the country. Waiting until the spring to bring in a new service would be a better use of money, he said.
The grant funds will be used to offer a minimum revenue guarantee agreement with the incoming airline, which ensures it will meet its yearly revenue goals, even if sales are low.
“It’s to compensate them for what they may have lost,” Howell said.
While the airport will see less air travel during the winter, Howell says he does not expect to lay off any airport staff. The car rental companies at the airport also remain operational. Private planes and corporate jets will still be running, as will the airport’s other services.
However, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees will be cycled to other airports, he added.
“The takeaway from this is it’s not a lost cause,” Howell said. He is confident that with the benefit of the new terminal, the airport has what it needs to host a new airline and he hopes to secure one by the spring.