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Yeager eyeing airlines to provide service to Orlando

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Yeager Airport officials have contacted three airlines about the potential of new service to Orlando, Fla., in light of a federal grant the airport received in late September.

The airport received $700,000 through the Small Community Air Service Development grant program, which will help pay for marketing and startup expenses for a new Florida flight. Only 25 airports in the country were awarded grant money through the program.

The developments were discussed at the airport's board meeting Wednesday afternoon.

But although the airport now has funding available for an airline to use, it's up to the airline to decide to take the money to begin new flights, Airport Director Rick Atkinson said.

Until the summer of 2012, AirTran Airways provided direct air service to Florida from Yeager. However, when Southwest Airlines bought AirTran, the service was dropped, despite performing very well.

The result of the loss of AirTran caused passenger traffic from Charleston to Florida to plummet and fares on the route jumped significantly.

Airport board member Priscilla Haden pointed out that the loss of AirTran service was negative for the airport's bottom line.

"Our budget was significantly impacted by the loss of the Florida flight," she said.

Atkinson said half of the grant award will help pay for startup expenses for the airline. The other half will go to marketing for a 15 month period -- three months before and 12 months after service arrives.

"In West Virginia, $350,000 is a lot of marketing money," he said.

Atkinson said the airport contacted airlines that they thought were likely to take advantage of the grant, but couldn't give more details other than they were not legacy carriers. He said each of the airlines "responded favorably."

"Each of these airlines... are in a growth pattern," he said.

The grant program through which the airport applied is the same program that made the airport's Houston flight possible in 2002. At the time, Continental operated the flight, but that airline has now merged with United, which still provides the service.

In other business, the board:

* Learned the airport received a $200,000 grant to conduct a sustainability planning grant that the airport will use to conduct an energy efficiency study.

Atkinson said the results of the study will be used to see how the airport can become more energy efficient and save money in operation of the airport. For instance, the study could reveal ways the airport can make its heating and cooling system more efficient.

"We do not make the best use of our central plant," he said. "We have a boiler and a chiller plant that aren't used to their full capacity."

The airport can incorporate recommendations from the study into future upgrade projects.

Airport officials will have a meeting Friday to "establish the scope of the work and study design for the project."

* Received an update about the obstruction removal project at the south end of the airport's main runway.

The $15 million project involves removing part of the top of a hill at the end of the runway to give departing planes more room for takeoff, in response to newer Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

So far, pre-construction and blast surveys have been finished, and other prep work is also complete.

Starting Monday, crews will begin more of the heavy duty work to cut down the height of the hill. Blasting will need to be performed to remove some parts of the hill, but that process likely won't begin until after March, Atkinson said.

"They're going to use smaller blasts," he said.

On Oct. 2, airport officials held a community meeting in the Coal Branch Heights neighborhood of Charleston, which lies just past the construction site. Atkinson said over 70 people attended that meeting, and residents were understanding of the scope of the project.

"We told them we can't promise there won't be any problems, but if there is a problem, we'll address it," he said.

* Heard from Col. Bill Peters about military developments related to the West Virginia Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing.

Peters said those in the military are keeping an eye on decisions by Congress and the Air Force related to military bases in the U.S. He said proposals have been made to end use of certain airplanes and shuffle equipment between various bases. However, he added that he doesn't foresee any major impacts as it relates to the Charleston facility.

"I don't see any real threat," he said.

The Yeager Airport board will meet again at noon on Dec. 11. Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.


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