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Airport enplanement numbers rising, but still well below critical threshold

MORGANTOWN — When it comes to the number of enplanements, or revenue passengers boarding aircraft, at the Morgantown Municipal Airport, there’s good news and bad news … and very bad news. 

The good news is the airport is projected to surpass 7,000 enplanements in 2023. If it clears that mark, it’ll be the first time it’s done so since 2016 (7,851). 

The bad news is 10,000 is the critical number it needs to hit.  

Falling short of 10,000 enplanements cuts the airport’s annual Airport Improvement Fund allocation from $1 million to $150,000. AIP funds are airport infrastructure dollars, making them important for airports looking at expensive facilities upgrades, like, for example, a $70 million runway extension.   

The very bad news — since 2019, the year the FAA gave the all-clear for Morgantown to begin its 1,001-foot runway extension project, the Morgantown Municipal Airport (MGW) has left $4.25 million in AIP dollars on the table by not hitting the 10,000 enplanement threshold. 

The question is, can it hit that number? 

It hasn’t in more than a decade.  

MGW Executive Director Jonathan Vrabel said you’d have to go back to 2011 to find the last time 10,000 paying customers boarded a plane in Morgantown. 

The very next year, Silver Airways took over as the airport’s EAS, or essential air service, carrier.  

EAS is a federal subsidy provided directly to carriers to offset the cost of rural operations and ensure air service in smaller communities. 

Numbers hovered between 9,200 and 9,500 for the first three years under Silver, then reliability issues began taking a toll.  

In late 2016, with enplanements on pace to fall well below 8,000 for a second year, the city jumped ship and brought in Southern Airways Express. 

But after two-plus years of Silver completing 70% or fewer of its flights, the damage was done. Despite a new carrier coming on board, the numbers bottomed out. 

If you throw out 2020 as a COVID anomaly, 2017 (5,200) is the low-water mark for enplanements, with 2018 only slightly better at 5,488. 

Two significant things happened at this point. 

One, after both 2017 and 2018 the FAA came to the city explaining it must apply for a waiver to keep its EAS status as subsidies had surpassed the $200 per passenger cap set by the feds.  

In both instances, the waivers were granted. 

Even so, the AIP infrastructure money slowed to a trickle due to changes at the federal level. 

“In the FAA reauthorization bill there was a piece added to it that allowed airports that fit our category, and we were one of maybe five in the United States that fit this category, where we weren’t getting the 10,000 enplanements and we were an EAS airport, but we were still able to get the full $1 million entitlement,” Vrabel explained. “When the authorization expired in 2018, that went away.” 

If you exclude 2020, enplanements have increased each year since Southern took over. 

But significant challenges remain. 

Vrabel said Southern has quadrupled in size over the last four years, gobbling up most of the EAS contracts nationwide. 

This has resulted in growing pains. 

One, the war in Ukraine has clamped down on raw materials used to make aircraft parts for Southern’s smaller nine-seat planes. 

Two, as has been the case for the better part of a decade, there’s a pilot shortage due to a federal mandate dramatically increasing training hours. The shortage got exponentially worse following COVID, when major airlines raided smaller carriers for pilots to replace those pushed into early retirement during the viral slowdown. 

The major carriers offer six-figure salaries and large signing bonuses. 

“Southern is hurting,” Vrabel recently told state lawmakers. “They have pilots quit on the spot. They get an offer, and they just leave. So, it’s been very difficult and very trying. They’re having that same problem across the United States right now.” 

Media reports indicate Southern is actually suing a number of pilots who have left the company before fulfilling repayment agreements tied to training.  

The end result, Vrabel said, is “almost daily” flight cancellations. 

The MGW schedule includes four weekday flights to Dulles International Airport and two daily to Pittsburgh International Airport. There are only outbound flights to Dulles on the weekend. 

According to numbers provided by Vrabel, Southern completed 93% of its outbound flights to Dulles (and 92% of return flights); and 88% of its flights to and from Pittsburgh in September. 

In October, 100% of flights to Dulles were completed (98% return flights) and 76% of flights to and from Pittsburgh were completed. 

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