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Years of Efforts Take Wing, Service to Chicago Begins

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – They were greeted by a continental breakfast and tunes from a live smooth jazz trio, these first passengers for the return of daily flights into and out of Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

Many had arrived hours ahead the scheduled 8:55 a.m. takeoff.

They waited on benches outside the TSA gate – passengers weren’t allowed inside the terminal until 90 minutes before takeoff – and navigated a field of TV cameras and photographers.

Some were traveling for business, others for personal reasons. A few were combining the two over the long Fourth of July weekend.

“I’m going for a conference, meeting some friends I haven’t seen in long time and then on Sunday, it’s my 65th birthday,” said Ray DeCarlo, city of Youngstown zoning inspector. “If there had been a flight yesterday, I would have been on it.”

Ryan Debeic of Warren, a junior at Ohio State University, arrived about 45 minutes before boarding. He was going to Chicago to visit his girlfriend. Before this, he said, he either made the five-hour drive or, on rare occasions, flew out Columbus. Leaving from Youngstown, he noted, is a much less expensive flight.

“Especially over holiday weekends like this,” Debeic said. “I was looking at Columbus and a few were $150. This one [at Youngstown-Warren] was $80. Plus, it’s nice to be able to come home, see my parents, stay the night and then have a short drive to the airport.”

With the more convenient travel options, Debeic said, he’ll make the trip to Chicago more often.

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Rich Edwards, owner of R Ski Pool & Golf in Austintown, booked seats on the first flight to spend the weekend in the Windy City, but said he expects to use the flights for his business as well.

“I do a lot of traveling with clients. So instead of going out of Cleveland or Pittsburgh, we hope we can group different flights out of Chicago,” he said. “It’s a time saver. From the time I left my house to when I got here was 20 minutes.”

For more than two years, officials from the airport and executives at Aerodynamics Inc. have been working out the details of returning daily service to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. The Western Reserve Port Authority, which operates the airport, approved Aerodynamics in June 2014.

After several setbacks earlier this year, including the Department of Transportation questioning the financial fitness of the airline to operate and the subsequent replacement of its CEO, tickets went on sale in June, with the first flight scheduled to take off at 8:55 a.m. Despite a hiccup in the booking system of ticket sales the first week or so, the inaugural flight had 37 passengers, a “great number,” said Dan Dickten, airport executive director.

“It’s bittersweet. It’s gratifying that I can look at the display and see ‘Chicago’ up there, but this is when the work starts,” Dickten said. “All the other airlines are watching this and watching it closely. They’re all aware of it. If it succeeds, there will be others.”

Part of the challenge now, Dickten said, is changing local travel practices. People are used to going to Cleveland or Pittsburgh for connecting flights. Costs for flying might be comparable between those two and Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, he said, but the parking is cheaper here, it’s a shorter drive and there’s far less waiting in line.

“Now is when we have to roll up our sleeves and help change travel habits,” he said. “Why not take that connecting flight out of your own backyard and save yourself some time, save some money and time?”

At the JumpStart Air Service Development Conference in Denver a few weeks ago, Dickten and other airport staff met with nine airlines to discuss bringing service to the Mahoning Valley. Talks have already begun with Aerodynamics to offer connecting flights to Newark, New Jersey, giving passengers connecting flights headed both east and west.

“Having daily service that connects you to the rest of the world is as vital to an economy as paved roads, internet, electricity and running water,” said Tom Reich, airport director of air service development. “There’s a lot of tech businesses that want to get their employees around the world as quickly and efficiently as possible. … Having these flights allows people in Youngstown easy access to the world and vice versa.”

For Aerodynamics, the flights to and from Youngstown represent a large step forward, said its vice president and chief operating officer Mickey Bowman. The company has offered chartered flights for 57 years, but this is the first time it has ventured into scheduled daily service.

“The logistics are all different. How you treat passengers is different. Scheduled service is taking that unique experience, turning it into an everyday occurrence and then doing it over and over again,” he said, calling the partnership with the airport as a “perfect marriage.”

Part of what drew Aerodynamics to the Mahoning Valley, Bowman said, was the lack of air service to the area.

“It was clear that there was a vacuum. It’s unfortunate that people were forced to drive an hour-and-a-half to get a flight,” he said. “By bringing things back to Youngstown-Warren, it’s right in people’s backyards.”

Throughout the morning, even on the rooftop as airport employees and reporters watched the first flight leave, a festive air pervaded the terminal. Smiles and laughter were constant as they witnessed 2½ years of work at last pay off.

“It’s a huge amount of relief,” Reich said. “It’s like a team winning a championship. You know you want to do it, but you’re never sure of it until you raise the trophy. This is our trophy.”

Pictured: The first  of Aerodynamics Inc.’s daily flights from Youngstown to Chicago took off this morning.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.