Poor weather and travel habits have been two big challenges faced by a small Kansas airport that recently achieved the success of daily flights only dreamed of here.
United Airlines in January added daily commercial flights to Chicago O'Hare from Topeka Regional Airport after that small airport had spent about a decade, much like Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, subsisting with vacation destination flights, charters, military aircraft and small private jets.
"I have been pushing this in the community for about six years and the greatest challenge was convincing people it can be done," Eric Johnson, president of the Metropolitan Topeka Airport Authority, said last week. "There is this mindset if you are within 100 miles of an airport, you are close enough. And I don't buy that."
Photos courtesy of the Topeka Capital-Journal
A small regional United Airlines Jet is on the runway at Topeka Regional Airport.
Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport Director of Aviation Dan Dickten doesn't buy it either, but as authorities here get closer to garnering local daily flights, Dickten knows equally well the challenges that lie ahead.
The Topeka scenario mirrors the situation at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, which also has been without daily commercial flights since 2003. After months of talks with potential commercial carriers, Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and local economic development officials met March 10 in Chicago with United Airlines officials about the potential of adding twice-daily flights from YNG to Chicago O'Hare.
The Youngstown-Warren airport now is working on a 20-question, on-line survey requested by United to analyze local air travel. In its first week, more than 600 local travelers took the survey, which will wrap up Friday. Business and leisure travelers are being encouraged to complete the questionnaire.
Johnson said a similar $7,500 market study completed in Topeka was one of the biggest factors in securing that city's flights with United. That study showed the Topeka area sent almost a million passengers and $120 million a year to the Kansas City International Airport located about 75 miles northeast.
William Orbach, president and CEO of Ohio Star Forge in Champion, said his company would benefit greatly from direct flights to Chicago.
"I think our corporate would definitely be interested in direct flights to Chicago," Orbach said. "We wouldn't be using it on a daily basis, but we do have reasons for traveling to Chicago frequently."
Those include customers in Chicago and affiliated businesses there, he said. The company makes the trips now via a drive to Cleveland or Pittsburgh, he said.
YNG officials also plan to provide United with detailed background about just what led to the demise of daily service about a decade ago. That includes things like a declining steel industry and high local unemployment; older aircraft; no direct flights from YNG to Chicago at that time; and runway construction that rendered the airport nearly unusable for months.
Also helping in the persuasion is a $1.2 million federal grant that United could use to ensure its profitability as the new daily flights get going. Still, airport officials worry the amount won't be sufficient, and as a result, YNG Air Partners, a community support group, is working to raise funds that can be added to the pot.
Mahoning Valley native Michael Planey, who is co-founder of HM Planey Consultants, a transportation and technology consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., said just how far $1.2 million will go in ensuring revenue depends a lot on the service and airline agreement.
Baby steps, Planey said, is the key.
"$1.2 million might be certainly adequate for 12 months time. The reality of it is, you want to use that money to establish the service to entice an airline to come in. You don't want to be 100 percent reliant on it," Planey said. "I think the important thing is once you establish Youngstown as a viable origin and destination airport that other airlines can then seek other service. You need to start with baby steps."
Topeka Regional, by contrast, offered more than $2 million in revenue guarantee to United.
And so far, the Kansas airport has proven it will need it. January flights were only 25 percent filled, and February flights were about 35 percent filled, Johnson said. He attributed those low numbers to travel habits and exceptional harsh weather that delayed or canceled many flights. Figures for March were not yet available, but Johnson was expecting improvement due largely to spring break leisure travelers.
"I would love for it to be going better than it is, but I keep going back to the idea that it's been at least a decade," Johnson said. "Returning air service to an airport that has been without it, you have to change habits, and that's the hardest thing to do. We can market it all day long, but people are so used to driving (to other airports.) You can show all the benefits of not doing that, but it's a habit."
If Dickten is worried, he's not showing it.
In fact, he already is reaching for the stars, outlining a longterm plan that predicts profitability in 6 to 12 months followed by expansion of service to Newark or Washington-Dulles and attracting a new market of travelers outside the YNG catchment area. He also sees potential to add charters or shuttle service to Houston to service the oil and gas industry's travel needs.
Planey sees that as a very real possibility.
"Youngstown can serve as a nice transportation hub for the Utica and Marcellus Shale because you will be able to move people and possibly cargo into that airport as a nice centralized location for northeast and southeast Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia," Planey said.
"You have to understand that the airline world has changed so much in 10 years that things that were written off before are worth reconsidering now. That's where Youngstown can really fit in to this new airline world," Planey said.