The Williamsport Regional Airport may offer a direct connection to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.
Airport officials recently learned they will receive a $500,000 federal grant to be used with other funding to help lure a second commercial carrier to the local airport, and the Dulles connection shines bright on their radar screen.
"We are excited to get it," Thomas Hart, airport executive director, said Wednesday of the U.S. Department of Transportation Small Community Air Service Development grant. "It will assist in our efforts to recruit another airline."
A US Airways jet waits on the tarmac at Williamsport Regional Airport.
US Airways, the airport's lone commercial carrier, offers daily round-trip flights to Philadelphia. The airline used to offer a connection to Pittsburgh but discontinued that service in 2004.
Dulles is very appealing as far as a potential new connecting airport, said authority Chairman Mark Murawski.
"Dulles is a well-known and well-liked airport," Murawski said. "You can go anywhere in the world through Dulles. It is United Airlines' hub airport and they are one of the big boys."
"(Dulles) would provide us with a full range of domestic and international connections that would best fit our air service market," he added. "The Marcellus Shale gas industry is more than half of our business now. They need good connections, mostly to their homes and corporate offices in the southwest and southcentral parts of the country."
Dulles also will be a good fit for local companies not involved in the gas industry, he said.
"This is a benefit for all businesses that use air service in the area," he said.
According to Murawski, the grant will be used along with $550,000 in local funding provided by the First Community Foundation of Pennsylvania, the Lycoming Foundation, the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce and the Lycoming County commissioners.
The money will be available as a sort of collateral for a prospective airline.
"If they fly here, they are expecting to be profitable and they can only be profitable if they are filling up planes," Murawski said. "They want the community to guarantee that they won't lose money. This grant helps reduce some of the risk for an airline that wants to come here."
The grant, which also will be used to market the airport, may help bring an airline to the area but will not ensure it will stay here, he said. That ultimately will depend on community support, he said.
"The grant is a one-time deal," he said. "We aren't going to get it year after year to keep an airline here. People are going to have to use the airport."
Murawski said airport officials are "aggressively" seeking a new carrier. Although he is optimistic about the prospects of the Dulles connection, travelers should not begin booking flights there yet.
The chance that a deal will be made with another airline by the end of the year is "50-50," he said.
Vincent Matteo, president and CEO of the Williamsport-Lycoming Chamber of Commerce, said a second carrier "is critical to the local economy."
"(The grant) is a major step forward in our efforts to expand the airport and flight availability out of the airport,' Matteo said.
US Airways will remain at the airport even if another carrier comes here, Murawski said.
"We are not thinking of canceling (the Philadelphia connection)," he said. "We are even trying to get an extra (daily) flight there. We have three now and we are trying to get a fourth flight."
The airport recently announced plans to build a new terminal building, the estimated cost of which is $13 million.
The building is expected to be completed by the end of next year.
"Between the new air service connection and the new terminal building, the year 2013 is going to be known as 'the year of the airport,' " Murawski said.
According to Hart, the grant was secured largely through the efforts of Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who announced the grant award. In July, Casey sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supporting the grant.
The airport authority's consulting firm, Sixel Consulting Group, of Eugene, Ore., prepared the grant application, Hart said. The authority provided the firm with information and data for the application and local, state and federal politicians and local business leaders wrote letters of support for the grant.