Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, is considering giving away short flights to nearby towns. That's right, giving away. As in, for free. Why, you might ask? To qualify for $1 million in funding from the FAA, which gives away a minimum of $1 million to airports that serve 10,000 passengers or more in a year. Presently, Altoona-Blair is 1,700 passengers short.
While nothing is official yet, the idea surely has some area passengers interested, even though the free flights will be short-haul (to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 27 miles away). It's possible that passengers could get the first leg of a connecting flight to Washington, D.C., for free, because Johnstown serves as a feeder for United service to the Capital.
Altoona-Blair's idea has probably caused a stir at other small airports around the country as well. According to Altoona-Blair airport authority spokesman Don Rugger, even with the cost of those free flights factored in, Altoona-Blair would be looking at a funding infusion of roughly $850,000. That money could then be used to build new hangars for private aircraft, increasing the airport's capacity and, subsequently, income. For a small airport with little commercial traffic, the financial math makes perfect sense.
Whether or not Altoona-Blair's idea is ethical or not, however, is less clear. The 10,000-passenger mark is there to make sure airports serving a significant number of people receive the necessary funding to keep the airport in good condition. If Altoona-Blair can't reach the 10,000-passenger mark through normal business, does it really deserve the federal handout? Or is 10,000 passengers a semi-arbitrary number that, in this economy, unfairly leaves some airports on the outside looking in?
Either way, if this works, I wouldn't be surprised to see more small airports try it out. Nor would I be surprised to see the FAA tighten up its funding rules.