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Yeager Airport eyes pay freeze, layoffs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year's loss of nonstop air service to Orlando is being blamed for a round of belt-tightening at Charleston's Yeager Airport that is expected to include frozen wages, increased employee health-care contributions and, possibly, a few layoffs.

On Wednesday, the airport's governing board approved a draft budget that calls for lopping nearly $675,000 from Yeager's personnel and marketing budget to help keep per-passenger enplanement costs close to the current rate of $10.73.

Passenger boardings dropped from about 280,000 to about 260,000 over the past year, due mainly to the loss of nonstop Charleston-Orlando air service following Southwest Airlines' takeover of AirTran, the carrier that operated the route, airport officials said.

AirTran had successfully operated the Charleston-Orlando run for three years before dropping it last June. Southwest's contract with its employees prohibited the carrier from operating in airports where ticketing and ground support duties for the low-cost carrier would have been hired out to non-airline contractors, such as Yeager's CRW Services.

To help make up for the passenger boarding fees and airline landing fees from the loss of the Orlando route, Yeager's draft budget calls for the airport's 51 employees to forgo annual wage increases, currently set at three percent, during the coming fiscal year and pay a higher share of health-care premiums.

Several positions expected to become vacant might not be filled, "and we may have to eliminate a few others," said Rick Atkinson, Yeager's executive director.

Atkinson said raising landing and boarding fees to make up for income losses from the dropped Orlando route runs the risk of having airlines respond by reducing service to the Charleston market.

Some of the $675,000 budget reduction would come from paring $150,000 from the coming fiscal year's marketing budget. A projected $68,000 carryover from the current year's marketing budget will make up for some of that loss.

"With a bigger airport, like the one in Columbus, losing 20,000 passengers wouldn't make that big of a difference" in its operating budget, Atkinson said. "It's a different situation in a smaller airport like ours."

Atkinson said similar belt-tightening approaches were put in place at Yeager after the 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attack and again in 2008, when a stagnant economy and high fuel prices sent passenger boardings plummeting across the nation.

Despite the cost-cutting measures, Yeager plans to spend about $8.9 million during the coming fiscal year, compared to $8.7 million this year.

In other developments, Yeager board members learned that the cost of employee health-care benefits is expected to increase 12.74 percent during the coming year, with about 1.6 percent of that increase going to cover anticipated costs called for in federal health-care reform legislation.

Despite the increase, the airport will pay less overall for the benefit than it did two years ago under a different carrier.

At the suggestion of board member Allen Tackett, the former West Virginia National Guard adjutant general, a report will be presented next month showing the amount of money Yeager saves by having the Air National Guard provide free, on-site fire protection services.

Tackett said the information could help bolster the 130th Airlift Wing's position, should it be targeted for closure under a U.S. Defense Department cost-cutting sweep.

"Loss of the Air National Guard here would have to have a major effect on landing fees," Tackett said. The report also would let Yeager officials know how much they would have to spend to make up for the loss of service, should the base be closed.

Tackett said he plans to meet with current Adjutant General James A. Hoyer and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to discuss funding possibilities for adding a new bridge across the Elk River and an access road through Coonskin Park to National Guard facilities adjacent to the Charleston airport.

The project would provide more-secure access to the military site and enhance prospects for the 130th Airlift Wing emerging unscathed from base-closure proceedings, Tackett said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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