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Town Council backs 2-year airline contract at Massena Airport

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By TIM FENSTER MASSENA - The town council voted unanimously Wednesday night to back Cape Air’s bid to remain as Massena’s Essential Air Service provider for the next two years.

Pending approval of the federal Department of Transportation, Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air would continue to fly three round trips from Massena to Boston daily with one stop in Albany. The airline has provided round-trip service from Massena to Albany for the last two years on its fleet of 9-seat Cessna 402s. Under the contract, fares would remain at the current rate of $55.

During a conference call with Cape Air officials at Wednesday’s meeting, Vice President of Operations Andrew Bonney urged the council to back a four-year contract with Cape Air.

“We would love to really be able to settle in and plan for a longer time in Massena, so we provided a four-year option, which will improve stability and make it easier for Cape Air to make adjustments in the air service,” Mr. Bonney told the town council.

But councilmen were reluctant to back such a long-term commitment due to the changing landscape in the airline industry and at Massena International Airport.

“We don’t know the future of EAS. Will EAS continue to fund two airports 35 miles away from each other?” Council Albert Nicola said, referring to the Ogdensburg International Airport.

Supervisor Joseph D. Gray noted the frequent changes in the air travel industry, with some smaller airlines going out of business and instances of shrinking government subsidies to help cover costs.

“The landscape of aviation is changing dramatically, and we’re not sure if we want to lock in for four years (with Cape Air),” Mr. Gray said.

Council members also noted the upcoming changes at the airport, including a project to construct a new 12,000 square foot hanger and ongoing discussions to extend the airport’s 5,600 foot runaway to accommodate larger airplanes that can carry more passengers.

Massena already received a $759,000 state grant last year to construct the hanger, which requires an additional $134,100 local contribution the town will pay for from its fund balance. The hanger will be able to accommodate six small planes and two large ones, and will be constructed in the spring, Mr. Gray said.

“Should we be able to change the airport in significant ways, how will that impact (the contract with Cape Air)?” asked Mr. Nicola, in stating his support for backing the two-year contract.

Another issue raised by council members was whether Cape Air could increase the airport’s total ridership capabilities to more than 10,000.

Councilmen John Macauley noted the airport accommodates 9,855 passengers per year when running at full capacity. If the airport could get over the 10,000 mark, it would become eligible for federal subsidies of approximately $1 million, according to Mr. Gray. The airport currently receives federal subsidies of about $150,000, Mr. Gray said.

“It’s a big jump (in federal funding), and we would love to do it,” Mr. Gray said. “It would make our airport that much more viable from the town’s standpoint.”

Council members noted that increased federal subsidies could help finance the discussed runway expansion, projected to cost $12 million. However, Mr. Gray said the airport needs the capability to accommodate larger aircraft - the benefit of a longer runway - to break the 10,000 passenger mark.

“It’s kind of a chicken and the egg thing,” Mr. Bonney said.

Mr. Bonney said Cape Air is exploring the option of increasing charter flights at Massena’s airport to increase ridership. “The hunt for 10,000 is very near and dear to our hearts,” he said.

Cape Air officials also reported that ridership at Massena’s airport is projected to reach 5,000 this year, the highest it’s been since 2002, and that the airline is working on a designs for a new twin-engine aircraft to replace the 402s currently utilized by the company. Such airplanes would allow for nonstop flights to Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.

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