REGIONAL AIRPORT Problems in Pennsylvania stopped flights in Vienna
Vacation Express lost a break-even guarantee on related flights.
By STEPHEN SIFF
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
VIENNA -- Turbulence in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to Vacation Express' decision to ground flights from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.
This week, Vacation Express announced it will suspend flights from both the local airport and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport until at least next year.
Although the company did not sell tickets between the two cities, the future of Vacation Express service from both places to Sanford, Fla., and Myrtle Beach, S.C., was linked in several ways.
Service from both Wilkes-Barre and Youngstown started at about the same time, under six-month contracts. The same airplanes, based in Wilkes-Barre, served the routes from both cities. On some flights, Youngstown was a stop-over between Wilkes-Barre and the vacation destinations.
And in both communities, the service started only with the help of subsidies from county commissioners.
Poor ticket sales
But commissioners of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties in Pennsylvania decided to stop subsidizing Vacation Express flights from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport because of poor ticket sales, Airport Director Barry J. Centini said.
Under the arrangement worked out between the Pennsylvania counties and Vacation Express, the counties would cover any losses by the company.
"We anticipated, just like in Youngstown, people would get on the planes and the service would be profitable," he said. "We were hoping it would get better. Unfortunately, it didn't, for both Youngstown and us."
By July, the Pennsylvania counties had spent $600,000 making good on its guarantee that Vacation Express would break even, Centini said.
Newspapers in the area report that the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether airport funds were used appropriately in the deal.
Vacation Express has filled less than half the seats on August flights from Wilkes-Barre and the outlook for the fall months looked even worse. Only about 20 percent of seats have been booked for fall flights.
"There is no commitment from the county to subsidize that," Centini said. "What we are saying is we will not provide any continuing subsidy unless it is going better."
There are numerous other flights from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport, and four other carriers offer single-stopover flights to Orlando.
Over the summer, nearly 80 percent of seats on flights from the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport to Florida were filled, local officials say. However, sales were slowing for the fall, interim airport director Steve Bowser said.
The economy of operating the flights depends on a number of other factors, including the price of fuel and the number of hours a day planes are kept in the air and making money, Bowser said.
He said passenger numbers from the local airport will be a selling point as local officials continue to lobby airlines to come here.
To lure Vacation Express, Mahoning and Trumbull counties offered a $300,000 subsidy for the first six months, mostly to help market the new service.
Vacation Express asked local officials for $50,000 to $100,000 to keep service for another few months. Those talks were still up in the air when Vacation Express announced that it service will only be seasonal, Bowser said.
"We made a deal when they came in the first time and that is it," said Clarence Smith, a member of the Western Reserve Port Authority Board, which runs the airport. "We don't have piles of money around here."
A Vacation Express spokesman declined to comment beyond a written statement, which appeared to put responsibility on the board that runs the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport.
"The combination of higher fuel cost along with the normal slow-down of travel during the fall season has convinced the Airport Commission to curtail future funding of the programs for the time being," the release said.