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Air Ridership Takes a Dive: Airport Director Blames Economy for May Decrease in Riders, the Largest This Year.

June 20, 2008

By Ron Bartizek, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Jun. 20–PITTSTON TWP. — Passenger traffic at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport fell in May by the largest percentage this year, airport officials reported Thursday.

Airport Director Barry Centini speculated the 6.4 percent decline compared to May 2007 was due to a combination of higher ticket prices and pinched pocketbooks.

“You’ve got to look at the economy,” he said after the airport board’s monthly meeting.

Ticket prices and baggage surcharges are making it more expensive to fly. Also, the total number of available seats on flights from the airport has been reduced by airlines that are under financial pressure.

“But our loads have been pretty good,” Centini said, referring to the percentage of seats occupied. “We’re hoping to hold our own.”

Centini said Myrtle Beach Direct Air began service on June 7, flying a chartered 150-seat Airbus A320 to the South Carolina beach and golf destination. The company stepped in after low-cost carrier Southern Skyways canceled flights in May.

“The first flight we put 80-some people on,” and 58 boarded Wednesday’s flight, he said.

General aviation activity fell 25 percent in May, although revenue was 7 percent higher. Centini said the higher sales may have been due to the Pocono 500 race, which attracts larger private aircraft, but he was not surprised at the fall in flights.

“When gas goes up, general aviation goes down,” he said, noting both corporate and pleasure flyers economize.

The airport’s finances also suffered in May, although officials said much of the $255,618 decline in net income could be accounted by two items. Airport Assistant Director Michael Connor said there was no money transferred into the Passenger Facility Charge fund, compared to $210,000 last year.

Centini said interest income was down $34,000, primarily due to removing $1.4 million from the airport’s bank account that was used to buy new snow-removal equipment. Later in the meeting, the board accepted a Federal Aviation Administration grant that covered 95 percent of the cost, money that will go back into the account.

The board also voted to accept an FAA grant of $2.3 million, which covers 95 percent of the cost to install an emergency stopping system beyond the end of airport’s main runway on the Lackawanna County side. A similar system will be installed on the opposite end of the runway, and the board authorized the purchase of $2.1 million of material for use there. That part of the project also will receive 95 percent federal reimbursement.

After the meeting, board members were driven to the runway to get a close-up look at the system.

Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at 970-7157.

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