WESTERN RESERVE PORT AUTHORITY Destination: Getting ridership to take off

The airport has everything going for it except consumers.
VIENNA -- The Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport is a gleaming, but quiet place. Rows of chairs and a whole load of security equipment await their next arrivals.
They will come, as they did last summer, for a good deal. But this time, the numbers have to be right for both the airport and the airline, said Steve Bowser, interim director of aviation.
Some Mahoning Valley loyalty to the airport would be a plus, too.
"Our product in the past basically wasn't the product the people in the Valley wanted, obviously. Our ridership was very low and our leakage to other airports was very high," Bowser said. "That's where we are today."
The airport has a lot going for it: 1,400 acres, a $1 million secure holding area built about six years ago, the longest runway in northeast Ohio, a tower that's always open, military-quality fire and rescue service, ability to accept any size of aircraft in the world, six gates, seven hangars, 10 acres of cargo apron with warehouse, $2 million in resurfaced taxi areas, an expanded tarmac, a foreign trade zone, new radar on the way -- and remodeled restrooms.
For its size, it's "the safest, best-equipped airport in our area," Bowser said.
But none of this will work unless the Valley citizens utilize the services, "and that's why it's important for us to hit the pulse of what kind of service they're looking to have," Bowser noted.
Marketing budget
The airport had an austere marketing budget in the past, but could have done better to give airlines incentives to expand when they were here, he said. "Once they're gone, it's more difficult to bring them on board."
The airline office areas are ready, but empty.
Post-9/11 has dramatically changed the airline industry for small airports such as Youngstown-Warren. Today, the airline industry is paying more attention to what consumers want: "origination and destination carriers," low-cost dealers that leave an airport and go straight to where the flyer wants to be. These are not the "legacy carriers" of old that have lots of different planes and maintenance costs, labor and equipment, Bowser explained.
"Origination and destination is how you pique somebody's interest. Basically a direct flight is what everybody wants," he said.
In tune with that, the airport and the Western Reserve Port Authority that runs it are in the beginning stages of deciding how to use $20,000 to $35,000 to augment a $250,000 federal Small Community Air Services grant to attract and promote a carrier. Awarded late last year, that's a lot of money compared to the $120,000 spent in 2004 and about $7,000 annually before that on marketing.
"We are looking to use the money to both attract services and then to be able to promote that service," Bowser said. "The quickest way for an airport like us to make money is through air carrier services."
It's a critical issue for the airport because $1 million in annual Federal Aviation Administration funding depends on passengers coming through the airport gates. The airport needs to retain those dollars to maintain the $40 million in improvements made there, 10 percent of which were locally funded.
Vacation Express
Last February, Trumbull County commissioners approved lending the port authority $150,000 to help get Vacation Express flights started to Florida. Vacation Express, though, ceased local flights last September. It asked for an additional $50,000 to $100,000 to continue the service for three or four months, but no agreement was reached.
Vacation Express had offered the only regularly scheduled flights out of the local airport since Northwest Airlines pulled out in September 2002.
Right now, there are about 10 charter flights a month from here.
Bowser said he and others are now talking with a couple of prospective airlines but wouldn't get specific. "We're looking for somebody that could be a more permanent type of stay for us," he said. "We are looking at a couple different avenues, and it might be a mixture of both" leisure travelers and day-to-day business flights.
"The window of opportunity is still there to start something in the spring," Bowser added.
"I think what we learned from Vacation Express last year is that we would be able to tweak the system very well," he continued. "We are very actively involved in the number game, too. We certainly don't want a $400 air fare going down to Orlando -- that's not going to do it."
The right number will let the airline and the airport do well. "We want stability. And whatever that price is, we hope we'll have the Valley's loyalty," Bowser said.
As the airport markets itself outward, it also aims for other aeronautical uses, such as cargo and general aviation (corporate, private use planes). "General aviation ... can keep the airport where it's at," Bowser said.
There's room for improvement here too: Within reasonable driving distance from the airport, Bowser said, are 300 to 350 aircraft; yet only 40 or 50 are here. "So the others are going somewhere else."

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