Editor’s note: This is the second article in an ongoing series examining the impact of and challenges faced by the DuBois Regional Airport.
DuBOIS – DuBois Regional Airport continues to fly in the face of challenges presented by a shifting regional economy, changes in local funding levels, and wavering public perception.
“I believe the airport is an asset that nobody understands the value of,” said Dave Stern, CEO of Paris Companies and board member of the Clearfield-Jefferson Counties Regional Airport Authority. “A commercial airport to a community the size of DuBois is a big deal. There are so many communities that don’t have it…it puts you on the map.”
In 1960, the first commercial flight took to the skies from the DuBois airport.
The public use airport, which is owned by the airport authority, has since been operating as 1 of 15 of the commercial service airports statewide, while also offering general aviation access.
In recent years, the authority board has seen sizable drops in ridership, perpetual budget shortfalls, and is looking to the future to determine the best way for the airport to sustain itself.
Enplanements continue to decline.
Airport manager Bob Shaffer said the airport saw about 28,000 passengers in 1998, the highest use in recent history.
Enplanements have since decreased to 3,165 in 2015, according to the most current report Federal Aviation Administration.
From 2014 to 2015 alone, the airport saw a 22.45 percent decline in ridership.
While the airport hears complaints about price, available destinations, and performance of its current operator Silver Airways, the authority has no power to control those aspects of the facility it manages.
“One of the things I want to get across to the community, that even our commissioners don’t get, is that we’re an airport authority there to manage the assets of the airport,” Stern explained. “However, all of the complaints and inquiries are around the airline, which we don’t have any control over.”
Every two years essential air service contract for the airport is bid out by the federal government. Stern explained that while the authority makes a recommendation of which provider it would prefer, ultimately the decision is out of their hands.
While the board wasn’t happy with Silver Air after two years of working with them, the company became the provider for another two years because there wasn’t another viable option.
Shaffer said another contributor to the decline in commercial, as well as general aviation, through DUJ can be attributed to several companies –particularly Brockway Glass and Riverside –moving their corporate headquarters out of the area.
The decline in Marcellus Shale activity regionally has also taken a toll.
“I think airports are difficult to make money but people look at them as the economic development generators for the area,” Shaffer said, giving a nod to Orion Drilling and Cactus Wellhead, two oil and gas companies who located on airport property amid the regional Marcellus Shale boom.
A PennDOT study has shown the DuBois Regional Airport has a total regional economic impact of $28.6 million.
The airport is also a huge asset to many regional businesses who are able to shorten travel times to business meetings and have machine parts flown in, decreasing the time production is down, Stern relayed.
He also said when businesses inquire about relocating to the area, one of the most imperative questions they have is if commercial air service is available.
“Having an airline is a convenience and a necessity in a rural area like this. To be able to provide that service to allow our businesses access to the world, it comes with a price,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer said for some time now the airport has been operating in the red and currently carries around $100,000 of unreconciled payables and a $200,000 credit line for projects.
Largely, the airport contributes its deficits to the Clearfield and Jefferson counties commissioner boards, chipping away at their annual subsidy each year from 2010 until this year.
“When the commissioners fully funded the airport it wasn’t in the red,” Stern said. “Once one set of commissioners began to cut back funding, the other followed suit, which doubled the deficit in revenue.”
From 2004 to 2009, both counties gave a $100,000 subsidy to the airport (before that they were at a $60,000 funding level).
However in 2010, the Clearfield County commissioners began to dial back that number by about $10,000 annually. The Jefferson County commissioners followed suit.
Shaffer said the airport tried to align its budget with the revenue loss by putting off projects and cutting nearly four staff members. As the losses compounded, the airport continued to come up short because the county allocations account for about one-third of the airport’s approximately $700,000 budget.
“We tried to produce budgets that matched the funding. We tried. But it got to the point that our costs were the same,” Stern said.
This year, the authority asked both sets of commissioners to bump their allocation up from $75,000 to $155,000.
Jefferson County agreed, while Clearfield County dropped down to $70,000.
Of its income sources, Shaffer said there isn’t much room to grow, adding that the revenue from the counties is as important to DUJ, as it is to other airports across the state who are subsidized by county government.
Other than the county allocations, the airport’s other revenue streams for 2016 include: $203,736.28 for fuel (less $127,579.76 in fueling expenses); $153,602 in building and land rentals; $51,734.58 in concession fees (including landing, gate and fueling fees); $31,851.62 in other services ranging from operating its own water and sewer plant to lobby displays; $18,322.24 for maintenance hangar rental; $8,300 in rental commissions; and $8,281.36 in transient fees (landing and tie down fees).
By comparison, its expenses (other than fueling), include: $182,861.08 in employment costs; $111,544.42 for administrative costs and employees; $90,959 for utilities; $80,949.30 for maintenance supply and service; $38,899.28 for debt service; $33,773.04 for insurance; $17,255.80 for snow removal; $9,730.48 in maintenance expenses; and $9,313 for training.
The projected deficit by year’s end is estimated to be about $2,000. Last year it was $78,154.56.
“When the airport authority meets, much of the discussion is about staying solvent,” Stern explained. “The airport should be meeting to talk about promoting the airport assets and airline activity, bringing in charter service and improving what the future looks like.”
Looking to the future
As in the past, the authority is hopeful increased community support and a financial boost will come with the new carrier agreement which was awarded to Southern Airways Express, LLC this week.
The new carrier has told the authority board it will charge $25 one way to Pittsburgh. By comparison, an Expedia search this week showed a one way flight from DUJ to Dulles with Silver Airways costs $144.10 (which includes tax and fees).
Running 19 weekly flights from DuBois, the new provider will begin service Oct. 1, with half its flights going to Pittsburgh and the other half to Baltimore.
“I think we’ll see triple the enplanements with the new airline,” said a hopeful Stern.
With the more distant future in mind, the board and its stakeholders, with the help of a PennDOT consultant, have put together a three-year strategic plan, which considers three scenarios –continuing with business as usual, boosting marketing efforts by about $60,000 annually, and suspending commercial service.
All three scenarios require increased funding from Clearfield and Jefferson counties.
However that allocation amount begins to slowly decline in the third year with the increased marketing and no commercial air service scenarios.
At this point, the draft plan awaits board approval.
“If you let this facility go away, the area is never going to get something like this back,” Shaffer said. “What’s here took all of these years to get here. If you walked away from it today and decided five years down the road you wanted to start over again, it would never happen.”
It remains unclear how cutting air service would impact its stakeholders as the authority is contractually bound in some cases to return the money it has been granted by the federal and state sources if commercial service ceases.
As part of the strategic planning process, the board has discussed the possibility of reaching out to other counties across the region for assistance.
“At the end of the day, we’re not trying to be adversarial. We’re just trying to run this business the best way we can,” Shaffer said. “We don’t have that tax base like the school district or counties do. We need to look to them to decide if they can continue to support this facility and to what degree.”