CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- Charleston's Yeager Airport is using a recently awarded $700,000 federal grant to target three airlines for an array of incentives aimed at reopening a nonstop air route to Florida.Half of the grant money would be used to market a new Florida route, with a campaign that would begin three months prior to startup and end one year after the launch of the new service, Yeager Airport Director Rick Atkinson told airport board members at a meeting Wednesday.The remaining $350,000 from the Small Community Air Service Development Grant would be used to defray the airline's startup expenses, such as training local staff and buying computers and other hardware, and to temporarily subsidize the airline's revenue stream.Atkinson did not identify the airlines being targeted for the Florida route, other than to say they are "in a growth pattern" and are not mainline carriers.Yeager is not targeting a particular Florida city for the route, but a Charleston-Orlando link flown by AirTran from 2009 until last June was popular with West Virginia passengers and profitable for that discount carrier. But after Southwest bought AirTran in 2012, the airline dropped service to Charleston and several other smaller cities that didn't fit Southwest's business model.
About 20,000 passengers a year traveled between Charleston and Orlando on the nonstop AirTran route. Loss of revenue from the decline in Orlando passenger numbers was cited as the main reason for a vote by the airport board earlier this year to freeze wages of Yeager employees and increase employee contributions to health insurance.In other developments on Wednesday, Atkinson told board members that heavy equipment will begin arriving Monday to start shearing off a knoll in the Coal Branch Heights-NorthGate area adjacent to Yeager's main runway.About 1.3 million cubic yards of earth will be moved to excise the top of the knoll, which obstructs the climb-out space and landing approach at the downtown Charleston end of the 6,802-foot-long runway.Atkinson said no public roads would be crossed by heavy equipment during the earthmoving project, which will all take place on undeveloped land owned by NorthGate or on property owned by the airport. The $13.2 million project is being financed through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Improvement Program.Grubbing and tree removal has already been done on the site, and the construction of sediment ponds and haul roads is expected to begin soon, Atkinson said. The project will involve some daytime blasting, but that is not expected to begin until next spring.Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5169.