By KALEA HALL
In 1998, service was soaring at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.
The Vienna airport had not just one, but three daily network carriers: United, Northwest and U.S. Air.
By 2002, all three were gone.
Fast forward 14 years, and daily service is coming back to Youngstown.
It’s easy to envision travelers bustling about at the retro-designed airport preparing to take off to Chicago O’Hare International Airport on the service Aerodynamics will offer come June 1.
But that is, for now, just the dream.
“We have to change the mindset of local travelers who haven’t had daily service to basically return to their own airport,” said Dan Dickten, director of aviation at the airport that was built in 1941. “Our marketing and advertising program is designed to do just that.”
The 21st century has not been nice to smaller airports.
The industry was hurt by the Sept. 11 attacks, a downturn in the economy and cutbacks from airlines that started to decrease the number of flights.
Airline mergers and a pilot shortage also caused trouble.
Then came the 2009 recession.
“Smaller airports have really struggled,” said Brett Snyder, author and founder of the airline industry blog, CrankyFlier.
Youngstown was one of those airports.
Another factor came from changes made by the U.S. Department of Transportation with essential air service, which affected funding for small airports. The Essential Air Service program was created to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before airline deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service, according to transportation.gov.
With EAS, the DOT “determines the minimum level of service required at each eligible community by specifying a hub through which the community is linked to the national network, a minimum number of round trips and available seats that must be provided to that hub” and other specifics.
Allegiant, a Las Vegas-based leisure travel airline known for its economy flights, came to Youngstown in 2006 with flights to Orlando. Slowly, the airport picked up more destinations. Today, Allegiant offers flights to Orlando, Tampa, Fort Myers and Myrtle Beach.
From 2009 to 2010, the number of passengers at the airport increased 51 percent from 35,087 to 52,526 and continued to rise every year.
In 2015, the airport saw 133,927 passengers.
The continued passenger growth and work by the Western Reserve Port Authority, which operates the airport, to get new service caught the eye of some airlines.
United Airlines was one of those airlines.
But in 2014 the airline told Youngstown airport officials that it had concluded “there was not a solid business case” for starting a daily service here.
“At the same time we were entertaining United, ADI came forward,” Dickten said.
GETTING THE SERVICE
To prove to ADI, and other airlines, that the Youngstown airport had potential to support daily service, the port authority hired Tom Reich, director of air service development at AvPorts, a consulting service for airports. Reich is paid on a retainer of about $3,500 per month.
Since 2010, Reich has worked to develop new air service at the airport.
“We act as an airport lawyer in the courtroom of airline opinion,” Reich said.
Reich provided facts to support statements made about Youngstown. Some of the noted attractive attributes of the area include the population base, economic growth and the array of industry, from auto to tech and energy.
Getting attention from an airline is hard, especially today.
“In the last 10 years, the industry has contracted,” Reich said. “Airlines aren’t really growing like they were.”
Beachwood, Ohio-based ADI, with an operation in Atlanta, Ga., was a long-time private charter company that had a 50-seat jet and wanted to get into the commercial side of the business.
“It’s diversification,” said Mickey Bowman, vice president of airline services. “We do charter work right now, and we are going to continue doing that. It’s a way to organically grow the company.”
The port authority, through its work with AvPorts, used data from tickets purchased through websites other than the airline itself to show where local travellers are going and other details.
Surveys also were conducted of local businesses to see what destination would be of top interest. Chicago was the answer.
ADI saw Youngstown as a place with a persuasive story, so the company went for it and applied for a certificate to provide daily service between Youngstown and Chicago 10 times per week on a 50-seat jet.
WAIT FOR APPROVAL
ADI applied to receive its certificate in June 2014 and in January the DOT tentatively denied the application.
The concern was over leadership in the company at the time. The DOT learned that the company’s former CEO, Scott Beale, was found to have committed fraud. Beale owned 80 percent of the company and was ADI’s chief executive officer and was a member of its board of directors.
The company entered into a stock-purchase agreement with the primary owners of SeaPort Airlines, John Beardsley and his wife, Janet. SeaPort is a scheduled commuter airline based in Portland, Ore. The Beardsleys became the owners of ADI through ADI Acquisition Co. after the sale closed in July 2015.
After a continued vetting of the airline, the DOT approved the service in late January – 19 months after the initial application.
SUPPORT FOR THE SERVICE
The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber has supported the service from the start.
It’s seen as a way to boost economic development here because it connects the Mahoning Valley to the world.
“It’s an excellent story to add to our marketing,” said Sarah Boyarko, senior vice president of economic development for the chamber.
The chamber surveyed local business and has developed a marketing partnership with the port authority to get the word out about the service.
“There are a lot of people in the community who travel outside of the area,” Boyarko said. “Chicago is a perfect connection.”
It connects fliers to 130 worldwide destinations.
“The whole community has to come together to make sure it is being utilized or it will go away,” she said. “It was a hard road to get it here, and now we have work hard to maintain it.”
A LOOK FROM THE OUTSIDE
Analysts are quick to note the concern they have with the service sustaining itself.
The overall opinion is this will be difficult.
With ADI only having one flight on some days, local business travelers may see an inconvenience.
“If you are a business traveler you generally are going to need that flexibility,” Snyder said.
Airport officials note the convenience in the proximity of the airport and the inexpensive cost to park. Parking is one-third the cost of the other larger airports.
Another factor that could impact this service: customer loyalty to airlines and airports. People have become conditioned to drive to bigger airports nearby.
“Most cities think they have demand and they don’t,” Snyder said.
To change the loyalty, ADI must have an agreement with airlines to have a seamless connection for customers.
“If you are trying to fly to Chicago and you are not on interline you can run into all kinds of problems,” said Seth Kaplan, industry expert and managing partner at Airline Weekly. “[The service] is certainly something you root for so it can succeed. You hope it works. It’s going to be rough.”
It’s also costly for a small plane to carry passengers than for larger jets because the cost to run the flight is spread across fewer passengers, Kaplan explained. Just because the flight is smaller doesn’t mean it has fewer expenses than larger planes.
“Fuel is cheap right now and that makes a lot of things viable that are not otherwise viable,” Kaplan said.
CONFRONTING THE CHALLENGE
ADI, which is working through the Federal Aviation Administration “proving” flights, is also working on a hosting agreement to have connecting flights.
“It’s more expensive to do it this way but it is necessary to have those interlining agreements,” Bowman said.
An interlining agreement is a voluntary commercial agreement between airlines to handle passengers with itineraries that have multiple flights on multiple airlines.
The company with which ADI is working is an “established carrier and they will host our flight inventory in their carrier,” Bowman said.
“We will take their identity,” Bowman said.
ADI has signed a letter of intent for this agreement.
The company has promoted connecting flights offered on carriers: jetBlue Airways, Delta, United and American Airlines.
“It’s really what you have to have these days,” Bowman said. “We really have to have this in place to make that work in a seamless fashion.”
It also has to be in place for a $1.2 million revenue guarantee to be used. These funds come from a grant the port authority received to ensure ADI makes a profit during its startup phase of service.
Ticket sales for the service will start between April 15 and April 19. Prices are said to be comparable to other local airports from $90 one way up to $250. Tickets will be sold on ADI’s website and through other ticket-buying venues.
ADI has come up with a flight schedule that includes two flights on Monday, Thursday and Friday and single flights on Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
Dickten reminded fliers to remain patient with the service in the beginning because they will most likely have to sit and wait for a connection until the service is built up.
The port authority has hired PALO Creative to market the air service in a variety of venues from billboards to print to get the word out about the service.
Soon, a new airline name will be announced.
“[The service] makes Youngstown a destination ... and a destination that you can get to on a daily basis,” Bowman said. “We are very focused.”