Updated

Plan sought to keep Easterwood flying

By JOHN LeBAS

Eagle Staff Writer

Dwindling ridership and the airline industry’s financial woes have some local officials worried that Continental and American Airlines will reduce or eliminate flights at Easterwood Airport.

So far, those concerns come from reading the tea leaves — neither airline has announced plans to pull service from the regional airport. But officials, fearful that reduced air travel could harm the local economy, are proposing a new partnership aimed at keeping Easterwood’s only two airlines.

Exactly what that partnership would entail remains unclear, but it would aim to increase ridership in exchange, perhaps, for more attractive flight schedules and fares, officials said.

The goal is to balance the community’s needs and the airlines’ needs, said Roland Mower, president and CEO of Research Valley Partnership.

“The signals are out there that the airlines are in trouble,” Mower said. “They will be looking for ways to cut costs, and we don’t want to be where they cut costs. We need to be proactive instead of reactive.”

A three-month, $24,000 incentive program for the airlines expired in March. The program was aimed at boosting jet service over turboprop flights by refunding certain landing fees to the airlines.

“Maybe it’s time to look at something a little more permanent in nature,” Mower said.

Both American, which offers turboprop flights at Easterwood, and Continental, which flies regional jets in and out of the airport, have been bruised by a sluggish economy and diminished ridership since Sept. 11.

Rumor that the airlines may pull out of smaller markets such as the Texas A&M-owned Easterwood Airport has so far been just that — rumor.

“We’ve asked what can we do to help them continue service, and they haven’t responded,” said Chuck Sippial, Texas A&M’s vice president for administration. “We think the loss of either of those airlines would seriously impact this community.”

Before Sept. 11, about 91,000 passengers used Easterwood each year, Sippial said. That number slipped last year to about 78,000 — a reduction of more than 16 percent, close to the national average.

Texas A&M’s travel restrictions, imposed on employees earlier this year because of budget cuts, are also blamed for the slide.

If ridership continues to decline at the same rate, Easterwood will serve only 70,500 passengers this year, Sippial said.

At the same time, Easterwood faces increasing competition from other regional airports, including Bryan’s Coulter Field and facilities in Navasota and Brenham. That competition further cuts into revenue, which increases fees charged to airlines that use Easterwood, said John Happ, Easterwood’s aviation director.

Increased ridership is critical to keeping Continental and American flying at Easterwood, Happ said, and may be accomplished through advertising campaigns and programs like “block ridership,” in a which a business agrees to buy a set number of tickets each year.

But the “leakage” of passengers to airports in Houston and Austin is also driven by factors set by the airlines — namely, flight schedules and cost. Both are cited as deterrents to flying in and out of Easterwood.

Continental representatives could not be reached for comment this week.

Dale Morris, American’s manager of corporate affairs, said the company wants to establish a better partnership with the local community.

“In a post-9/11 environment, when you’ve had American Eagle stay in communities when there was a downturn in ridership, I think that underscores how we feel,” Morris said. “All we want is to form that partnership with the community.”

But Morris avoided suggesting how that partnership could yield results.

Mower predicted that specific plans to offer greater incentives to the airlines would soon start to materialize.

“Given the state of the airline industry, our conversations locally will probably intensify,” he said.

• John LeBas’ e-mail address is jlebas@theeagle.com.

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