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Last commercial flight to depart Williamsport Regional Airport today

The Williamsport Regional Airport on Wednesday. KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Although the last commercial flight leaves the Williamsport Regional Airport this afternoon, Richard Howell, executive director, is hopeful that after the beginning of the year, another commercial carrier can be found as air travel heads into its normal cyclical increase in the spring.

He said that he is “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll have a new carrier by spring, which may be one flying under the United brand. He noted that American Airlines is pulling out of three airports this week.

“The way the cycle for the airline industry is generally that they go through the year — summer’s good,” Howell said. “They bank on November and December with holiday travel to get them through what we call the graveyard of January and February.”

“For a variety of reasons, usually people wound down their years, and then they’re not traveling. Travel doesn’t usually pick up probably ’til March,” he added.

Howell shared that after exploring what the pattern is in a normal year and even though the airport had hoped to perhaps resume commercial flights some time this year, it just didn’t make sense.

“As we were discussing this with different providers…what we found we were really doing is we were pushing this someplace that it really didn’t want to go, especially as bookings started to drop off,” he said.

“We knew that we weren’t going to be making any money for the carrier in January and February, so what it really came down to was, we hated it, but we’re looking at something in the spring,” he said.

To critics who question why a new terminal was built now commercial flights are ending, Howell was quick to point out that commercial flights ended because of the pandemic.

“If there wasn’t a pandemic, we would now have two flights a day to Charlotte.”

“The delta (variant) spurt has impacted the carriers rather adversely,” Howell said. “Six weeks ago, they were booking a lot more passengers than they’re booking now.”

“When we built this building, there wasn’t any prospect of a pandemic on the horizon that was going to decimate the airline industry and the airlines,” he said.

Even though the commercial carrier will no longer fly out of the local airport, Howell said that there is still a market here.

“Our customers don’t need a low-cost carrier fare; they will pay a reasonable and sometimes even a little higher fare, because they did it for years,” he said, adding that a one point there were 80,000 people going in and out of the airport.

“The other fact of the matter was we had carriers that were telling the authority, ‘We’re not going to come into your market because your ancient terminal building isn’t conducive to our operations,'” he said.

Howell wanted to remind people that the airport is not closing with the ending of commercial flights.

“The tower is going to be staffed some 16 hours a day. We run about, I think it’s something in the neighborhood of 20,000 operations a year in and out of this place,” he said.

“This morning when I came in, there was a couple of corporate jets. We have a lot of business in the area that drives corporate travel,” he added, noting that executives from corporations don’t fly commercial, but have their own private jets flying into the local airport.

When businesses are looking to locate in an area, one of the top five things they look at is if there is reliable air service.

“If the community doesn’t have reliable air service, you won’t even know that they were considering your community…they’ll just (move) on to the next place that does,” he said.

“Looking at the rural demographics and things, people are moving here,” he added.

He said that the market here is healthy with businesses, colleges and factories that “call this airport home.”

Employees at the airport are not expected to be furloughed, although Howell said that TSA employees could be shuffled around.

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