Md airport plays a role bigger than its runway

 - April 23, 2008, 11:07 AM

While many people may not be familiar with Maryland’s Hagerstown Regional Airport (HGR), President Bush’s pilots are. Air Force One has landed there so the White House entourage could be transported by helicopter to nearby Camp David.

When the President is aboard, any aircraft becomes Air Force One, and the version that lands at HGR is a Boeing 757, not the 747 that most people immediately think of. Although Hagerstown’s 5,461-ft main runway can accommodate the 757, it is considered marginal for the new crop of regional jets, which airport officials would like to attract.

Airport officials actually realized about three years ago that an impending resurfacing project for Runway 9/27 would trigger an FAA requirement to bring it up to the latest standards. That meant they would have to lop off an additional 1,000 ft to provide for mandated safety areas.

Meanwhile, Chautauqua Airlines, which provided service to HGR under the US Airways Express banner, was moving to Embraer regional jets to replace its Saab 340 twin turboprops. “There are regional jets out there that will fit into Hagerstown,” said Carolyn Motz, airport manager. “But we saw a lot of regionals buying Embraer 145s and 135s. The performance capability of the airplane and the range that they could take those airplanes is such that 5,451 feet just doesn’t do it.”

Given the fact that it takes eight to 10 years to complete a runway extension, Motz said, airport officials knew that if they didn’t get started they were going to be “way behind the eight ball.” So the Hagerstown Regional Airport Advisory Commission, which operates HGR, launched plans to extend the runway to 7,000 ft.

After convincing the FAA that an extension is justified, airport officials completed an 18-month environmental assessment, which resulted in an FAA finding of no significant impact. The commission now is seeking a letter of authorization from the FAA, which will ensure continued federal funding once the project receives the final green light.

Motz contends that Hagerstown is an “excellent place” to use aviation trust fund money for the $60 million expansion, which will include improvements to the terminal, because the airport has the ability to assist the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area with commercial air service traffic.

“At the growth rates we’re seeing at [Baltimore-Washington International Airport] and the other metropolitan areas,” she said, “I think it just makes sense for us–across the nation–to pay attention to regional airports. There are more regional airports than there are major airports–the large international airports–and the smaller fields can take a huge strain off the system.”

To accomplish the expansion the airport will have to build a bridge over a highway to the east, probably two bridges–one for the runway and another for the taxiway. Because of a drop in terrain, that will require about 2.5 million cubic feet of fill. “It will be quite a project,” Motz conceded.

Although she is hesitant to predict when the project might be completed, a guess would be the end of 2006 or early 2007. But she admitted, “Having started this three years ago, I am very pleased with where we are right now.”

But Chautauqua Airlines converted to jets more quickly than most people expected, and when it got rid of its Saab 340s it ceased serving HGR. Motz said the airport was “very lucky” to attract Shuttle America to operate as the US Airways Express franchisee, using the same Saab 340s that Chautauqua had abandoned. That service, however, only went west to Pittsburgh, with four daily round trips on weekdays and three daily trips on the weekend.

Historically, passengers using the Hagerstown Airport have favored traveling east to BWI, where they could make connections mostly to the south, often on US Airways. But in the late 1990s the airline began concentrating its hubs in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. With the inability to feed into its system through BWI, US Airways had no reason to include Hagerstown in its hub-and-spoke system, and Hagerstown lost passengers to other airports.

Then the state of Maryland came up with a subsidized passenger service, which Hagerstown immediately embraced. It now has Pan Am Clipper Connection service to BWI on Jetstream 31s.

“The beauty of the program is that Pan Am had already begun some jet service in Baltimore,” said Motz. “So not only will we be shuttling passengers over to Baltimore to connect with other airline flights, but they’ll also have that option now of sticking with Pan Am for their entire flight.”

Noting that most of Hagerstown’s passengers are bound for Orlando, Fla., she explained they can get on an airplane at HGR at 7:30 a.m. and be in Orlando by noon. “If Pan Am can complete a passenger’s journey without the passengers having to change airlines, without having to go through security screening again–which is an issue in Baltimore–then that’s a good deal for passengers,” Motz said.

Pan Am now makes three daily round trips between HGR and BWI on weekdays, and two daily round trips on weekends. But the subsidized program, which the Maryland legislature authorized for a three-year trial period, is only six months old, and Motz said it is constantly being evaluated.

She predicted there will be some tweaking, whether the airport requests a change in schedule with Pan Am or something else. That is how you keep an airline healthy and the passengers happy, she said.

“We have to do the marketing,” said Motz, who has been with the airport full time since 1991 and manager since 1995. Before that she served on the airport commission. “We have to go out and say, ‘This airline’s here to stay, this airline is reliable, this airline is nice and clean,’” she said. “It’s a marketing issue.”

While Motz would like to see other Maryland cities included in the state subsidized program, she admitted that September 11 has complicated this expansion because many of the airports are not FAR Part 139 certified and cannot easily provide security screening and meet other requirements, such as having fire and rescue equipment at the airport.

HGR has been a Part 139 airport for “a very long time,” and has a sterile area for passengers to be screened. But for a general aviation airport to start from scratch to achieve Part 139 certification and meet new security procedures could prove to be a daunting and expensive task.

That aside, Motz said, “I’m certain more cities in Maryland are going to be able to
take advantage of this new operation, which has begun as a result of the jump start from the subsidy.”

In addition to being a Part 139 airport, HGR was selected by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for one of five pilot programs to have explosive trace detectors (ETD). Three EDTs were installed in the terminal–two at check-in and one in the secure area. “When you fly out of Hagerstown, your bags are screened for explosives,” said Motz.