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REGIONAL AIRPORT Search goes on for airline



Published: Sun, September 8, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Two airlines have been approached about coming here.

By STEPHEN SIFF

VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF

VIENNA -- For the past two years, local officials have focused energy, hopes and consultant fees on attracting another passenger airline to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

So far, it's been to no avail.

When the last scheduled commercial flight takes off from the local airport today, the pilot could turn off the lights behind him at the recently renovated, four-gate airport terminal.

The building still houses two car rental agencies and will continue to be used by charter flights primarily headed for gambling destinations.

The airport has some great advantages, says Tom Nolan, director of aviation. Its runway is the longest in northeast Ohio, parking is cheap and plentiful, passengers don't have to fight crowds and long lines, and aircraft aren't jostling for takeoff times.

It has been a struggle to tell this story to airlines.

"It is extremely difficult. It is difficult to get their attention right now, just to get into corporate offices," he said.

$40 million improvements

The airport's search for airlines began in earnest two years ago after $40 million worth of runway and other improvements, Nolan said.

Western Reserve Port Authority Board, which runs the airport, began 2001 with a $154,000 marketing plan that included advertising, direct-mail solicitation, a program to work more closely with area travel agents and development of a Web page to bring business to the airport.

It also includes completing an analysis of why area residents use other airports.

The airport has also engaged a consulting firm specifically to pitch the facility to airlines. Starting in January, the airport paid KH Group Consulting of Minneapolis and Washington $70,000 to prepare sales pitches and accompany airport officials on visits to airlines.

So far, officials have visited corporate offices of two carriers to try to persuade them to come to the Vienna airport, Nolan said. Neither has responded.

There are also regular phone calls with anyone who may be interested in coming or might be able to help.

This past week Nolan spoke twice with an officer at Golden Airlines Inc., a Colorado-based company that owns three planes, all smaller than nine passengers, which runs charters to the Bahamas and Cuba.

"It would be premature and unreliable to say they are coming," he said. "If there is any plausible opportunity we will pursue it, as we always do."

Last flight

US Airways Express stopped flights between Youngstown and Pittsburgh in October after determining the route was not profitable. Northwest Airlines came to a similar conclusion in June, when it decided that its last flight to Detroit would be today.

Officials say they think a passenger airline can be successful here, if the airport just offers the right product. Flights to Pittsburgh didn't work because Pittsburgh is too close, Nolan said.

Northwest's service to its hub in Detroit could have worked, but twice-daily flights were too infrequent for business travelers, who also disliked a layover in Akron, he said.

Hope for the airport rests with flights to popular destinations such as Orlando or Las Vegas, or in attracting frequent service to a hub such as Cincinnati or Detroit.

"We haven't found our niche yet," said Joseph J. Angelo, a Trumbull County commissioner.

On shaky ground

The way political winds are blowing, the port authority might be well advised to find it soon. Trumbull County commissioners have approved paying their half of the subsidy for the airport this year, about $300,000, but beyond that it is, well, up in the air. Mahoning County pays another $300,000.

"If they don't find something within the next couple of years, they might have to look for a different avenue of funding," Angelo said of the port authority.

He suggested that a cargo company might be willing to buy the facility, or the port authority could ask voters to approve an operations levy.

Mahoning County commissioners have also expressed reluctance to keep funding an airport with no passenger service.

Commissioner Ed Reese has said the money may not even be available next time if Mahoning County voters do not approve a half-percent sales tax on the November ballot.

siff@vindy.com




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