JAMESTOWN — Local officials believe the county’s two airports can provide much-needed economic benefits, whether through the return of commercial air service to Jamestown or by pivoting to provide other air-related resources.
A host of county officials on Monday discussed the airports and their potential to members of the Jamestown City Council.
Shannon Fischer, manager of county airports, was joined by County Executive PJ Wendel as well as legislators David Wilfong, R-Jamestown; Lisa Vanstrom, R-West Ellicott; and Pierre Chagnon.
Fischer said the county is looking for “funding opportunities” for airport-related programs such as Essential Air Service, which provides a government subsidy to airlines to serve smaller communities.
In January 2018, the federal Transportation Department terminated its Essential Air Service agreement with Southern Airways Express after passenger counts fell to an average of four per day in Jamestown, far fewer than the program’s requirement of 10 passengers per day. The south county airport also had trouble meeting the requirement that subsidies be less than $200 per passenger, with subsidy-per-passenger numbers of $630 that ranked among the highest in the nation before the contract was terminated.
The Dunkirk airport — considered a general aviation facility — has never had commercial air service, and there has been no push to bring it there.
On Monday, Fischer heavily promoted the county’s Air Service Recovery Program that will determine whether Jamestown’s airport can sustain commercial air service. The study will take three to six months to complete.
“We had the people that wanted to fly,” Fischer said. “It was the service at the time that kind of went downhill. We know that that’s a huge hurdle, getting the right airline back here. Also, everything has to just come together; it’s not going to be an easy process, but it is something that we can do.”
Wilfong alluded to the “economic indicators” that will drive the Jamestown airport’s future.
“We need ridership,” he said. “We can do a lot of these surveys, we can go to our elected officials and say what we need, but it really boils down to the ridership per day, per month, for us to get that Essential Air Service back. That’s the most important part.”
There were 7,943 arrivals and departures at the Jamestown airport last year. In 2022, there were 8,625 arrivals and departures, as well as 6,347 arrivals and departures in 2021 and 5,101 arrivals and departures in 2020.
Wilfong said the county will need the city’s help in getting people to fly into the airport, located just north of the city in the town of Ellicott.
“It’s very important that we get the city behind us when we try to move forward to get this survey done,” Wilfong said.
Acknowledging the number of airport-related studies completed over the years, Wendel said the county has never undertaken a market analysis to determine whether there is an appetite for commercial air service.
In April 2023, the county Legislature agreed to spend $50,000 on the study, with the county Industrial Development Agency also contributing $25,000.
If it’s found that Jamestown does not have the market for Essential Air Service, the county executive said there’s opportunities to add more smaller hangars on airport property.
“Right now there are people coming from Akron, New York — coming to Jamestown because we have space,” Wendel said.
Fischer said there is a waiting list to utilize hangar space at the Dunkirk airport while Wendel said the county could bring in new revenue if additional hangars were constructed.
Wendel also noted that the county could pivot and try to market itself for electric air service.
“Electric air travel is not out of the realm of possibility. We have a lot of opportunities,” he said.
He added, “If people had any clue of the people who flew in and out of these airports it would blow your mind. People come here to get away. They come here to almost hide, if you will. Celebrities, dignitaries, they fly in and out of that airport on a regular basis.”
Council President Tony Dolce, R-Ward II, asked Fischer how the city of Bradford in Pennsylvania sustains commercial service. She said the Bradford airport relies on its connection to a local hospital and university.
Chagnon asked how many airlines would be willing to serve Jamestown. In response, Fischer noted that there is “a lot of interest” though only a few actually qualify for the Essential Air Service program.
“That is what offsets that funding to make it reasonable for all of us to fly,” she said, adding that the goal would be for an airline to eventually sustain itself without reliance on an Essential Air Service contract.
Wilfong said commercial service in Jamestown is an “economic driver that we must have, especially for Chautauqua County and, of course, the city.”