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Officials: Reliable air service needed

Community leaders took turns citing reasons why commercial airline service is vital for the area in a three-hour webinar Thursday.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania Hearing brought together officials from government, industry, education, and health care.

Frank Pelligrino, chair, Williamsport Municipal Airport Authority, said air service is simply a must for rural communities.

He noted the investments made to upgrade the airport in Montoursville over the years, including a new terminal building.

Pelligrino was among a number of people noting the loss of flight service to and from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the fall after it was launched in August.

“Williamsport, Pennsylvania deserves more,” he said.

Shannon Massey, general manager, Lycoming Engines, Williamsport, stressed the importance of having reliable local air service for customers and potential employees recruited by the company.

Lycoming Engines, she said, partners with Pennsylvania College of Technology, which, like many colleges in the area, needs good commercial air service.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, chair of the Center for Rural Pa. and host of the webinar, noted that 27 percent of the state’s population resides in 48 counties, including Lycoming.

Loss of air service would seem to isolate the area more than ever, he said.

Williamsport Regional Airport Executive Director Richard Howell testified about the general excitement surrounding American Airlines’ decision in 2020 to begin service to Charlotte, a major hub for passengers flying to other destinations.

But just two days after the Aug. 18 maiden flight from Williamsport to Charlotte, American officials announced they would suspend the service in the fall.

By Sept. 3, he noted, the airlines had scaled back from two Charlotte flights a day to one.

“In mid-November, they announced permanent suspension,” he said.

American did resume flights to and from Philadelphia beginning Jan. 6. However, those flights will end March 28, leaving the airport with no commercial service.

“What is happening in Williamsport will happen elsewhere,” Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce President Jason Fink said. “We are only the start of a trend by the airlines.”

Fink said small communities need reliable air service to remain economically viable.

Lycoming County Commissioner Rick Mirabito said rural Americans are treated like second class citizens and cutting flights to their communities is just an example.

He noted the local investments for constructing a new terminal.

“Small businesses make up the backbone of our community,” he said. “They need it (air service).”

Big companies, Mirabito said, need air service as well.

“I recognize we aren’t going back to the days of regulation,” he said. “Congress has an obligation to help rural areas.”

Little League International President Steve Keener noted the importance of air travel for his organization.

The annual World Series in August draws people from around the world for the event.

In addition, Little League employees travel to different destinations for business.

“Ten of our 90 employees fly between 50,000 and 120,000 miles annually,” he said.

He noted Little League officials frequently took flights in and out of Williamsport.

Now, they use other airports for more reliable and convenient travel.

“That’s how we travel today,” he said.

Patti Jackson-Gehris, vice president, market development, UPMC, said the health system benefits in its recruitment of physicians and other health care providers from good local air service. In addition, UPMC employees often must fly to distant locales for training.

Lycoming County Commissioner Tony Mussare said, “Business owners have lost confidence because of the lack of reliability of air service.”

Brent Fish, of Fish Real Estate, said commercial air service is part of keeping the housing market and community strong.

Studies, he said, have shown increasing numbers of retirees are looking to move to suburban and rural communities.

David Heath, legislative liaison for the Aviation Council of Pennsylvania, said airports need to develop land around them for economic activity.

“Air transportation is essential for economic development,” he said. “That is why aviation needs to be a priority in all transportation discussions.”

Mike Mooney, managing partner, Volaire Consulting, noted that small communities have sustained some of the biggest hits from airline mergers, pilot shortages, and overall economic setbacks over the years.

And when COVID-19 emerged, domestic air travel experienced a large dip.

“That’s where we are … we are in the basement right now,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Kreamer, said efforts are continuing to bring more federal dollars to support air service. In the meantime, appeals have been made to keep American Airlines in Williamsport.

“We all know COVID has posed challenges for aviation,” he said.

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