The applause that greeted the arrival of the Pan Am Airlines Clipper Connection Boeing 727 passenger plane at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport might have seemed odd to someone from, say, Akron, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. After all, daily airline service is a common occurrence throughout the country. But given the difficulty the Mahoning Valley has had in attracting a viable carrier, the applause was appropriate and understandable.
But the warm welcome last week for Pan Am Clipper President David A. Fink and other company executives wasn't just about an airline agreeing to begin daily service on Sept. 15 from the Vienna Township facility. It had to do with hope -- for the future of the airport and the future of the Mahoning Valley.
Let there be no mistake: As the airport goes, so goes this region.
Why? Because of the $120 million a year factor that is the Youngstown Air Reserve Station. Without the airport, there would be no Air Force Reserve base, the fifth largest employer in the Valley with 2,400 workers. Nor would there be the 700 off-base jobs.
When the Department of Defense conducted its analysis of the reserve station as part of the base-closing exercise launched by the Bush administration and backed by Congress, it found among the strong points a low percentage of flight delays because of traffic congestion, an ability of the military facility to support large-scale mobility deployment, civilian and military pay rates and runway length.
Sliver of a margin
The Youngstown station is not on the list of military facilities to be closed, but it survived by a sliver of a margin in the final scoring of air reserve bases. The home of the 910 Airlift Wing and Marine and Navy units received a score of 40.09, compared with 40.03 for the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and 39.64 for the Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station. Niagara and Pittsburgh are on the DOD's closing list.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is reviewing the DOD's recommendations, must submit its list to President Bush no later than Sept. 8. The president has until Nov. 7 to review it, make any changes, and send it to Congress. If he misses the deadline, the process ends. Congress has until Dec. 22 to accept or reject the list in its entirety.
The BRAC Commission is conducting hearings around the country to give communities that will be affected by the closings a chance to make the case for keeping their facilities open.
That is why there can be no letdown in the effort to make sure nothing happens at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport that would prompt the commission to reassess the defense department's findings.
So how does Pan Am or any other commercial airline fit into this picture? The answer lies in three words: Annual passenger count. If the airline can help boost the yearly number to above 10,000, the regional airport's chances of securing a $1 million annual federal grant for operations and maintenance will be greatly improved.
And then there's the intangible benefit of having an airline with a well-known name flying in and out of the Mahoning Valley. It is not far-fetched to believe that other specialty carriers would take a serious look at the region.
"The enthusiasm is just fantastic," Fink told the gathering of business and community leaders and politicians on hand to greet him and his associates. "I've not seen anything like it. We will be an absolute success, I'm convinced, if we can convince you and others to fly with us."
And therein lies the challenge to the people of the Mahoning Valley. Pan Am isn't asking for any government subsidies or financial guarantees, as Vacation Express did last year. However, Fink did make it clear that his company is looking to the Western Reserve Port Authority, the airport's governing body, to help it fill the seats.
The authority has retained Rubenstein Associates to market the Vienna Township facility. Using the slogan "The Sky's the Limit," Vic Rubenstein, a veteran public relations and political consultant, and Chuck Johnson, a former Eastern Airlines and US Airways pilot, along with Steve Bowser, the airport's director of aviation, contacted 700 enterprises and identified 40 "credible opportunities." Pan Am was one of the credibles.
"If Pan Am and the Mahoning Valley are successful together, there's no telling where we go from here," Rubenstein said last week.
As for the airline's decision to include Youngstown-Warren in its route structure, Fink, who at one time lived in Austintown, offered this reassuring comment: "We're not fools, we're businessmen." And then he added that if Pan Am can fill an average of 60 percent of the seats out of Youngstown-Warren, the airline can break even on the cost of serving this region.
It is no secret that the residents of the Mahoning Valley are a tough sell when it comes to flying out of the local airport -- as opposed to driving to Akron-Canton, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. The time it takes to get to one of those airports, the expense of parking, the long lines at the security checkpoints and all the other hassles associated with air travel these days don't seem to matter to them.
Thus, the challenge confronting the port authority is to persuade the thousands of area residents who fly each year that Youngstown-Warren is a much better alternative. As a first step, the panel intends to offer free parking for Pan Am passengers.
If you think that's not a big deal, it was Fink who mentioned it as an important inducement to get the people to use to the use the airport. He knows.