Airports in Beckley and Lewisburg are targeted for a combined $4.4 million in new federal funding to continue the Essential Air Service program that guarantees flights and affordable prices for individual and business interests.

Managers of both airports view such funding as “critical.”

“If it weren’t for the EAS program, right now, we wouldn’t have any service,” said Tom Cochran, manager of Raleigh County Memorial Airport.

“We’re aggressively working toward anything we can supplement that service with. The key to maintaining that service is use.”

Cochran’s airport is earmarked for $2.1 million, while Greenbrier Valley Airport in Lewisburg would get $2.3 million in an appropriations bill sent to the White House for the president’s approval, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., announced Wednesday.

“Our local airports are economic multipliers for our region’s overall business forecast,” the 3rd District congressman said. “This federal investment pays local dividends time and again, returning federal revenues through increased economic activity. Local businesses and travelers are equally served through convenience and more affordable flights.”

EAS was created in 1979 to help smaller airports sustain flight service after the airline industry was deregulated.

“The concern was about smaller airports that really don’t have enough critical mass to do centralization,” Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Jerry O’Sullivan said. “That’s what happened. This money came in to assure these airports would continue to have connections to the national airports system.”

O’Sullivan said the service is vital in his region given the revitalization of The Greenbrier, since many guests are from out of the area and travel on national airlines. What’s more, the service accommodates local businesses such as ABB and B.F. Goodrich in their needs to fly personnel back and forth, he said.

“Westvaco uses our service because it gets excellent connections through Cleveland to Houston,” he said.

Colgan has held the EAS contract at the Beckley facility since 1991, and with the arrangement due to expire in August, bids likely will be sought in February or March, Cochran noted.

“We’re looking forward to seeing that go out for bid again,” he said. “Certainly, we’re very appreciative of the program being viable at this point.”

Colgan runs the program through United Express.

“We have a larger airplane now than what we had a couple of years ago,” Cochran said. “We’re looking for continued improvements. As a matter of fact, we’re starting tomorrow a non-stop service to Washington. We had a one-stop prior. The non-stop will be important to us. It’s an hour flight. It connects us to several hundred United connections out of Dulles.”

Efforts are continually being made to keep prices competitive and schedules working for the public’s benefit, Cochran said. “Right now, we have an early out and a late evening back in,” he said.

“It’s a great trip for a one-day business trip. Or, if you’re just making a segment of connecting flights, it’s certainly good for that. It works good for a rural area to get into our nation’s capital within an hour and being able to do business and get back home the same day.”

Cochran said the commercial aspect has been a major boon for the airport over the years. “We’re looking at other features so that we can start promoting ourselves in different ways,” he added. “Commercial service is part of the economic development improvements we need in this area.”

By Mannix Porterfield

Register-Herald Reporter

December 17, 2009