A twin-engine Piper Chieftain screamed down the 1.3-mile runway at Hagerstown Regional Airport, lifted off and climbed into the clear blue sky, starting a short 60-minute ride to western Pennsylvania.
The nine-seat plane, carrying three of four scheduled passengers, was the first flight out of Hagerstown to Pittsburgh International Airport on Tuesday morning as part of a daily Sun Air Express commuter service that got under way about a week ago.
Airport Director Phil Ridenour said that “momentum is building” for the new route, which offers local business and leisure travelers a new option in addition to Sun Air’s current short hops to Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
“The phone is ringing off the hook,” he said. “There’s a lot of inquiries coming in. We can only anticipate as time goes on that the momentum will build and continue, and as long as they can maintain a reliable service, it’s going to be a great thing.”
Washington County and airport officials announced the new service on Sept. 8, advertising one-way fares as low as $39 for the federally subsidized service.
John F. Barr — a member of the Washington County Board of Commissioners who also serves on the county’s Airport Advisory Commission — said the new flights are geared more toward business travelers.
He said that business clientele and various studies have pegged Pittsburgh as a “good market.”
“We’re excited because it kind of rolls back to the old Piedmont (Airlines) days, where there were daily flights from Hagerstown to Pittsburgh,” he said. “That was used frequently…. I think Pittsburgh opens up another whole market for, particularly, business clients in the Hagerstown area.”
Two passengers aboard Tuesday morning’s flight were North Carolina businessmen Rich Ellman and J.V. Wrenn, both executives for Spirit Services, an environmental recycling firm with a facility in Williamsport.
The two men said they were headed to Pittsburgh before continuing on to eastern Ohio for business meetings.
The combined cost for the two of them to fly one way was less than $100 including fees, “which is cheaper than driving,” Wrenn said.
“It’s cheap and convenient,” he said, noting that it was his first time flying out of the Hagerstown-area airport.
“We’ve got business in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia,” Ellman said. “It’s a pretty good point for us to work from.”
The flights originate each day from Pittsburgh, fly into Hagerstown then continue on to Dulles, before flying back along the same route. Pilots make the round trip twice a day on weekdays and once on weekends.
Ridenour said ridership has been “fairly low” on the Dulles flights, and Sun Air and local officials hope the new destination gives the carrier a boost.
The service has to maintain at least nine passengers per day or risk losing Essential Air Service funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation, he said.
Currently, the service has been generating on average between six and seven passengers. With the addition of the Pittsburgh route, Ridenour said he expects to see those numbers jump above the required mark.
“We’re also finding out there’s folks that are in Dulles who want to go to Pittsburgh, so they’re flying from Dulles to Hagerstown, then Hagerstown up to Pittsburgh,” he said. “They say it’s much more economical for them to be able to do that than to fly directly from Dulles up to Pittsburgh.”