The DuBois-Jefferson County Airport is in a crisis. At this point we do not know how this will be resolved. A meeting was scheduled last week to determine the future of the airport.
As usual in these situations, it is a matter of money. The airport was established by Clearfield and Jefferson counties and was operated under a joint authority. The counties would provide a subsidy and the federal government would also add an annual amount. The state also contributed through various fees.
That state of affairs worked pretty well for about five decades. The small airport with the impossible access road survived shuttling passengers to larger air hubs, usually Pittsburgh.
Through the efforts of local, state and federal legislators the access road was finally built from I-80 directly to the airport. There were no more scenic tours through Allens Mills or Falls Creek.
That all changed on Sept. 11, 2001. On that date hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and into a field near Shanksville, PA.
Many things changed on that day including airline travel. Americans simply stopped flying as often as they had in the past. That impacted not only major airlines and airports but small carriers and small airports.
DuBois-Jefferson County, also known as DuJ, was one of them. The airport has struggled since that time. Everything went up, aviation fuel, labor costs, ect., except the number of enplanements. Gradually the number of people flying out of DuJ did increase but not enough to make it viable for small carriers to operate out of the airport.
More money was going out than was coming in. It was a situation that would, inevitably, lead to a negative cash flow. We do not know how bad the situation is because the airport has not been able to pay for a required annual audit for the past two years. That may not sound like a big deal but when you consider the audit only costs $8,500, that is an indicator of a serious cash flow problem. The Jefferson County Commissioners paid for the 2013 audit just so they would know what the true financial status of the airport really is.
The commissioners in both counties know there is a problem because the airport authority has requested an increase in the annual grant. They did not ask for a 25% increase or even a 50% increase but a 100% increase. In Jefferson County’s case that means going from $80,000 a year to $163,000 a year.
Clearfield has been even more generous. In addition to the annual grant of $60,000, Clearfield had been chipping in an additional $40,000. That amount has been gradually reduced and next year Clearfield’s total grant will be $75,000.
There seems to be little real hope of the counties increasing their share of operating expenses 100% on a perpetual basis.
There seems to be little hope of additional federal money either. The last time funding for small airports came before Congress it was bitterly debated and narrowly won approval.
The airport is indeed at a turning point. With small hope of attracting new customers and almost no real hope of additional money from the counties or the feds, the airport authority must face a major decision. The choice is simple, struggle on as a public airport or change the business plan and become a private airport.
The strategic planning meeting last week involved the Commonwealth. I have been told the state would like to keep DuJ as a public airport. That’s fine but I cannot conceive of the state putting any of its precarious financial assets into the operations of an airport in a sixth class county.
It would hate to see the airport cease to function as a public facility. But I would also hate to see scarce financial reserves used to support a facility that is seldom used.
It is time for all of the involved entities to take a realistic look and what can be done and what should be done.