From Mirror staff reports
The John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority is in search of a new air carrier after SkyWest announced it is pulling out of all 29 regional airports it services across the United States.
On March 9, the airports were notified that Essential Air Service provided by SkyWest Airlines would be terminated. The move comes after the COVID-19 pandemic stressed not only SkyWest but other airlines as staffing issues, operating costs and extreme fluctuations in customer demand dogged the industry.
According to the US Department of Transportation, on March 10, SkyWest filed a 90-day notice of its intent to terminate service at all communities, effective June 8.
“Although SkyWest Airlines Inc. would prefer to continue providing scheduled air service to these cities, the pilot staffing challenges across the airline industry preclude us from doing so,” SkyWest said in its filing.
“We’re really disappointed they’re pulling out,” said Heather Tomasko, assistant manager of the airport authority.
Tomasko credited SkyWest with doubling the passenger counts at the airport since it became the service provider in December 2020.
SkyWest uses a 50-passenger jet, Tomasko said, which helped bring in more passengers.
Flights originating in Johnstown went to Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington Dulles International airports, two of United Airlines’ hubs.
That service, she said, “Was a game changer.”
“The community really embraced the jet service,” Tomasko said, and the authority is searching for the same type of service to replace SkyWest.
In January, 567 passengers were booked on outbound flights from Johnstown, Tomasko said. In February, the number of passengers outbound was 582. Those were the highest numbers of outbound passengers for those months since 2007 and 2008, she said.
Even during the pandemic, the jet service was in demand, with June 2021 seeing 901 passengers outbound, the highest for that month since 2007.
In July 2021, 1,223 were outbound versus 979 in July 2006, she added.
Airlines often see a decline in ridership during January and February due to the winter months, but the demand kicks back up in the spring, Tomasko said.
The total for all of 2021 was 8,519 outbound passengers.
“The last time we had even close to that was 2007 when we had 9,601,” Tomasko said.
“We are really looking to get a jet service,” she added, pointing out that the numbers show “The community is willing to fly out of Johnstown with a jet service and the connection we offered.”
Before SkyWest, Boutique Air served the Johnstown airport. But that type of arrangement is not something the authority wants again, she said.
Boutique did a fine job, she said, but, though it offered more flights, it used smaller planes.
“Skywest had a flight attendant, a restroom … it was just a nicer flight,” she said.
Tomasko credits the airport’s free parking and short TSA lines for attracting local ridership. It’s also a shorter drive than local residents going out of Pittsburgh or Baltimore airports, she said.
SkyWest will continue to service the Johnstown airport even beyond the 90 days, if needed, after the US Department of Transportation issued a “Hold in place order,” which basically means SkyWest has to stay until another airline is in place.
Tomasko said the authority is working with a consultant “To make sure we get the best airline in here since SkyWest.”
The US DOT issued a Request for Proposals for air carriers to provide Essential Air Service to the Johnstown Airport and the other affected airports, according to a news release. Air carriers will need to respond to the RFPs with service offerings by April 11.
SkyWest’s notice to terminate service comes after its Feb. 2, 2022, notice to the US DOT that it intended to reduce service at 16 communities, including Johnstown. In that notice, SkyWest said “The staffing imbalance caused by the COVID-19 pandemic hampers SkyWest’s ability to this schedule.” Reducing its schedule at the airport would help it maintain reliable service, “As otherwise it would be offering schedules that may result in extended delays or cancellation,” according to the department’s report.
According to the department, SkyWest’s annual contract subsidy rates for the Johnstown airport was $ 3,424,020.