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County Officials Propose $72,000 To Restore Airport Service

County officials are proposing to spend $72,000 a year for up to three years of local funding as an enticement to the federal government to restore Essential Air Service to the Chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown.

A resolution to discuss the funding will be discussed by members of the Chautauqua County Legislature’s Public Facilities Committee on Monday.

The county has been working with Boutique Airways for about a year to restore commercial air service to the airport, with the county and air service provider submitting a revised proposal with updated financial information to the federal Transportation Department in August. That revised proposal was turned down in February citing, among other reasons, that the Chautauqua County community has access to other commercial air service providers and asking whether the community would support air service if the Essential Air Service subsidy was restored to the Jamestown airport. As part of the decision, the federal government encouraged the county to contribute financially to the airport.

According to the resolution, the county Airports Commission has recommended contributing $72,000 to augment the Essential Air Service contract. That figure is derived from analysis that shows the county would receive $72,000 in economic benefit from occupancy tax revenue and other tourism/economic development funding if commercial air service is restored to the airport. In addition to the $72,000 cash commitment, the county would commit to about $52,000 of in-kind help that includes establishing a CARTS stop at the airport, use of the airport terminal, hangar, apron and parking facilities rent-free, extended operating hours for snow removal and ground handling services and marketing and promotional services through the county’s social media outlets and tourism publications.

Many of those in-kind contributions had previously been included in proposals to the federal government, but approving a resolution would put the weight of the county legislature behind the promises made in the proposal.

The resolution also states that the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce has expressed “an explicit need” for reliable commercial air service at the airport.

There has been no commercial air service at the Jamestown airport since January 2018 after the federal government terminated the airport’s Essential Air Service subsidy because ridership numbers didn’t meet federal standards and because the cost per rider was significantly more than the federal program standards stipulate.

The Jamestown airport had been in violation of two tenets of the Essential Air Service program: the requirement that airports that receive EAS subsidies average 10 passengers per day and the “$200 Rule,” which stipulates that a community’s average Essential Air Service subsidy be less than $200 per rider. Using the “$200 Rule” as a guide, the Essential Air Service program at the Jamestown airport had been one of the most expensive airports in the Essential Air Service program on a subsidy per rider basis at $573 per rider, according to an analysis by Rachel Y. Yang for the Congressional Research Service in March 2017. Yang’s analysis showed only the Altoona, Pa., airport at a subsidy of $642 per rider, and the Beckley, W.V., airport, with an average subsidy of $599 per rider, were more expensive than Jamestown.

Boutique Air’s November proposal for flights to Pittsburgh estimated 12,564 passengers a year and barely met the $200 rule with an average subsidy cost per rider of $190.26. That proposal estimated an average of 6.07 riders per flight, less than the federal government’s 10-rider per flight rule.

Improved service may increase ridership, but federal officials reason that the biggest problem with the Jamestown airport is its proximity to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and the Erie International Airport. The airport has had service to a variety of hubs: Pittsburgh, Washington-Dulles and Cleveland. None of the changes in hubs brought the airport into compliance with the federal guidelines.

“The conditions and rationale identified in Order 2017-12-2 to deny Jamestown’s petition for waiver continue to apply,” wrote Joel Szabat, Transportation Department assistant secretary of aviation and international affairs. “Given Jamestown’s close proximity to several other commercial service airports and our analysis of Jamestown’s historical passenger levels and subsidy needs, the department finds that the joint proposal submitted by Chautauqua County and Boutique Air is not reasonable.”

Under the government’s reasoning, Boutique Air’s 12,564 passenger estimate is not likely to be reached; the Jamestown airport hadn’t seen that kind of usage since 2005. And, the department decided that Boutique Air’s estimate of 74 percent ridership on its flights was also overly optimistic. 2016 ridership totaled 4,408 passengers, or about 1.8 passengers on each of four round trips, or a 20 percent load factor.

During a two-day series of meetings in March, officials from local businesses, organizations, foundations, the county and U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, discussed the viability of the airport. One of the things County Executive George Borrello said was that the federal government wanted to see a local commitment made toward subsidizing the airport as a sign of support from the community and businesses rather than the federal government paying such a large portion of the cost for commercial air service.

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