Carrier says airport numbers are taking off as feds contemplate its future

MORGANTOWN — Southern Airways Express Chief Commercial Officer Mark Cestari said  he won’t try to predict the future when it comes to a pending ruling from the U.S. Department of Transportation that could eliminate commercial carrier service at the Morgantown Municipal Airport.
That said, Cestari points to rising enplanement numbers in recent months as indication that a handful of service adjustments will lift Southern and the City of Morgantown’s airport above the turbulence of their first two years together.
“For eight of the last nine months, going back to July of last year, we have set records at Morgantown, with some of the months being up as much as 25 percent,” Cestari said, noting the airline is completing 99 percent of its six flights daily to Pittsburgh, four, and Baltimore/Washington (BWI), two.
While Cestari focuses on the future, the feds are looking at the recent past, during which Morgantown   consistently failed to hit the critical 10,000 enplanement threshold — falling from 7,851 in 2016, to 5,698 in 2017, to 5,488 in 2018.
An enplanement is a commercial passenger flying out of the airport.
The city was served documents from the U.S. Department of Transportation on March 29 explaining that, for the second year running, its municipal airport was included on a list of those scheduled to lose EAS eligibility.
EAS is a federal program enacted to ensure smaller communities maintain access to commercial air service. The city received nearly $3 million in EAS funds in 2018, but due to low enplanement numbers, its per-passenger subsidy topped the $200 threshold, triggering the USDOT’s decision.
Like last year, the city is petitioning for a waiver that will allow it to remain in the program. Losing the EAS subsidy would mean the loss of commercial carrier service.
EAS funds don’t pass through the city, but are given directly to Southern to offset the cost of its rural operations. According to Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake, those federal dollars are generated through ticket upgrade charges and taxes on international flights using U.S. airspace.
Additionally, not hitting the  10,000 enplanement mark  impacts the amount of airport improvement funds allocated to the airport through the Federal Aviation Administration.
“That’s the reason that number is such a holy grail when it comes to local airports,” Cestari said. “At 10,000 enplanements they receive $1 million from the federal government for infrastructure funding. It’s as simple as that.”
Cestari admits Southern likely won’t hit the 10,000 enplanement mark in 2019 either, but he is confident the numbers will be high enough that, should USDOT approve the city’s pending EAS waiver, this process won’t be necessary again next year.
“I think we and the community have made the case that the trends are in the right direction in Morgantown and the community is supporting the service,” Cestari said. “[USDOT] has indicated in the past that they are not in the business of denying service to communities provided there is a pathway to viability.”
That pathway, according Cestari, has been a number of changes implemented by Southern since taking over for Silver Airways as Morgantown’s EAS carrier — most notably a recently completed interline agreement with American Airlines.
“Customers can now buy one ticket, check their bags through to their final destination and connect through the largest airline in the country to over 500 cities. That wasn’t the case last year,” Cestari said.
Additionally, in July of 2017, the carrier switched its Washington D.C. operations from Dulles to Baltimore/Washington, which, Cestari explains, is an easier commute to downtown D.C., offers more flights and is less expensive than Dulles, a “fortress hub” of United Airlines.
In 2018, the airline altered its daily offerings from three flights daily to both Pittsburgh and BWI, to four flights daily to Pittsburgh and two to BWI.
“All of these factors together are contributing to what we believe is a fix,” Cestari said.
While Brake said he believes Southern is a good fit for the city’s airport and he’s confident that USDOT will provide a waiver to keep EAS service in Morgantown, he recently told members of city council that the airport will survive regardless of its EAS future.
“Keep in mind that our business model here is, and not to diminish what Southern offers, but quite honestly the largest portion of our model is the corporate, private, recreation aviation flier and a lot of military activity. We are the busiest airport in West Virginia, but we’re not the busiest for the flying public,” Brake said, later adding, “Contrary to anything that may be on the Internet, the airport is open. It’s open for business and it will continue to be open.”
Brake’s assessment is that pending the current outcome, the city may very well be petitioning for another waiver next year — an outlook not shared by Cestari.
“We’re about 450 passengers ahead of the same period last year, so I will respectfully disagree with the manager’s assessment that we’ll be in the same position next year,” Cestari said. “Our tracking does not indicate that. Our tracking indicates that we will meet the goals for this 2019 measurement period.”
Cestari also commented on a recent report indicating the North Central West Virginia Airport, located 36 miles away in Clarksburg, has already topped 10,000 enplanements for 2019.
The two airports have been seemingly at odds at times in recent years as the Benedum Airport Authority has spoken in opposition to Morgantown’s plan to extend its runway from 5,199 to 6,200 feet.
The runway at North Central is 7,000 feet, allowing it to handle much larger aircraft than the nine-passenger propeller-driven craft used by Southern and most other EAS carriers.
Unlike Morgantown, Cestari said, Clarksburg’s airport sees a much higher patronage of outbound, leisure fliers taking advantage of Allegiant Air’s trips to Florida and South Carolina. North Central also offers flights to Washington Dulles and Chicago O’Hare.
“These airport services are complementary, but they’re fundamentally different. It stands to reason, in Clarksburg, the planes are 15 times the size of ours, so it’s easier to get to 10,000 enplanements than when you’re bringing those people in nine at a time,” Cestari said. “The market can support both airports and the airports actually serve complimentary functions.”
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