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Grant could bring Orlando air service back to Yeager

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Yeager Airport has received a $700,000 federal grant that the airport hopes will help restore flights between Charleston and Orlando.

The grant money will be used primarily as bait to attract a low-fare airline. If an airline agrees to provide the flights, the money would be used for a marketing campaign promoting the flight and also to ease the airline's startup costs, for things like computer terminals at Yeager, airport spokesman Brian Belcher said.

Charleston has not had a direct flight to Orlando since June 2012, when AirTran, a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, discontinued its thrice-weekly service.

"Since they pulled that, it's cost us about 80,000 passengers," Belcher said. "So we made it a goal that we're going to try to attract someone to fly there."

Rick Atkinson, Yeager's director, said at the time that the Charleston-Orlando flights were very successful for AirTran. After it was acquired by Southwest, though, it had to discontinue service because of a Southwest labor agreement that does not allow the airline to outsource any work to contractors, such as ground crews.

The grant, announced Sunday by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., comes from a Department of Transportation program that helps small and medium-sized communities offer affordable air service.

"We are excited to have the opportunity to work with an airline to re-establish popular routes to Florida markets," Atkinson said in a statement. "We thank Senator Rockefeller for his efforts on our behalf."

Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, created the Small Community Air Service Development Program to help provide more affordable service to smaller airports.

"The Small Community Air Service Development Program is so important to West Virginia's airports, giving our families convenient access to destinations that might otherwise be unavailable to them," Rockefeller said in a statement. "Yeager Airport is a tremendous success story and I remain committed to helping it and other airports across the state grow and thrive."

Since 2001, the program has given out about $145 million in grants to small and rural airports. The grants have ranged in size from about $20,000 to $1.6 million. Over that time, six West Virginia cities (Charleston, Parkersburg, Bridgeport, Huntington, Beckley and Morgantown) have received about $3.6 million in grants.

Yeager last got a grant in 2001. It was for $500,000. Belcher said that grant was used to attract Continental Airlines to provide service to Houston. Continental has since merged with United, but the route is still in place and Belcher said the grant has been very successful.

He said the new grant will let the airport advertise a new route, not only in the Charleston area but in areas up to 2 1/2 hours away, because a low-fare airline would make Yeager an attractive point of departure for travellers.

He would not say if Yeager is in discussions with any specific airlines about the flights.

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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