After several years with a cloudy future, the sun is shining brighter than ever on the Williamsport Regional Airport.
In 2004, its lone commercial carrier, US Airways, discontinued service to Pittsburgh, thus eliminating a western connection to the airport and leaving it with service only to Philadelphia.
In 2008, the airline announced its plan to discontinue even that service, prompting airport officials to seek federal assistance under the Essential Air Services Act.
What a difference a couple years make.
Not only did US Airways change its mind about leaving the airport, it recently upgraded its 37-seat Dash 8-100 aircraft with 50-seat Dash 8-300.
Better yet, officials are optimistic they soon may land a commercial carrier to provide the airport with that coveted western connection.
Airport Executive Director Thomas Hart said Thursday that he, David Frey, airport marketing director, and Jason Fink, vice president of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, are scheduled to meet in early February with Sky West Airlines, a regional carrier of United Airlines.
"Sky West and United are interested in providing two round trips a day direct to Chicago, and one round trip direct to Houston utilizing 50-seat regional jets," Hart said. "They are very interested in starting service here. This meeting will be to negotiate terms and conditions to provide that service."
"The airport authority and the chamber are very confident this service is going to happen," he added.
Attracting another carrier would be "the most significant event that could happen" to the airport, said Airport Authority Chairman Mark Murawski.
"If we could land the deal, it would be a high mark for us," Murawski said.
Both Hart and Murawski said the transformation at the airport may be attributed in part to an increase in activity fueled by the Marcellus Shale.
Commercial enplanements were up significantly in 2010 over 2009, Hart said.
"Overall, enplanements were up 13.7 percent over 2009," he said. "However, from July to December we were up about 24 percent."
Hart said those numbers would be even higher had inclement weather in Philadelphia not grounded about 37 percent of the flights during the month of February.
There has been a similar spike in corporate aircraft activity at the airport, according to Frey. For example, in October, 108 corporate aircraft used the airports facilities. Of that number, 72 were associated with the gas industry, Frey said.
Before the Marcellus Shale boom, the most corporate activity the airport saw during any month was between 60 and 66 aircraft, he said.
The airport has increased revenue from industry-related companies seeking operating space, according to Hart.
Texas-based Sooner Pipe last year began leasing 25 acres of airport property for $56,000 a year, global gas exploration company Anadarko is leasing office space for about $17,000 a year, and the airport is negotiating with another company that wants to lease warehouse space, Hart said.
The Marcellus Shale also has helped revive plans to build a direct, unobstructed access road to the airport from the Warrensville interchange at Interstate 180.
The project includes the construction of a two-lane, one-mile roadway, the alignment of which will run along the south side of the Lycoming Valley Railroad tracks, a combined highway-railroad bridge spanning Loyalsock Creek, and the demolition of the current railroad bridge that spans the creek.
The project had been on the table for "several decades" but was suspended by the state Department of Transportation because there was no money to pay for it, Murawski said.
The county is working with the SEDA-Council of Governments Joint Rail Authority to develop a financing package that could cause design work to be reactivated within the next several months and the project to be completed within three years, he said.
The Joint Rail Authority, in partnership with the county, recently received a $10 million federal grant that is to be used for transportation projects.
"We are very confident this is going to happen," Murawski said.
Hart said the airport is poised to handle expected growth because of upgrades planned many years before anyone in this area had heard of Marcellus Shale.
"Over the last five or six years, the authority has been making upgrades to the airports infrastructure, particularly movement areas runways and taxiways," Hart said.
Work lengthening the airports main runway was completed last year, he said. Also completed was the extension of both ends of the main taxiway. Those projects were paid for with $7.2 million in Federal Aviation Administration funds, Hart said.
Hart said a study is to be performed this year regarding the use of instrument approaches to all ends of the airports runways. Instrument approaches will allow aircraft to land at the airport with lower visibility minimums, Hart said.
"The lowering of the minimum will allow commercial airlines and corporate and private users the ability to come and go during inclement weather," he said.
The future of the airport looks very bright, Murawski said. That, in turn, bodes well for Lycoming County and the region, he said.
"Air service is an essential component of an economically viable community," he said.