My first column in this newspaper was published 21 years ago this month; the subject was airline service. Between 1999 and 2001, about a quarter of my columns focused on this locally important subject. Having one or more major airlines serving Huntington was essential then, as it is now.
Last week, due to the drastic decrease in passengers and related financial changes from the COVID-19 pandemic, American Airlines suspended service to the Tri-State Airport (HTS) and 14 other regional airports around the U.S. Tri-State Airport Director Brent Brown said this is a temporary suspension. That is what it must be, for the Huntington area’s economy and future growth. When control of the coronavirus makes it fun to travel again, Huntington-area residents will need to support Tri-State Airport by choosing their departing and arriving flights at this airport.
Not realizing that the world was shutting down, Maury and I returned to HTS from vacation on March 11. We haven’t been there since. Had COVID-19 not struck, we would have been flying in and out of HTS frequently from April through July. Like most Americans, especially of our age, we’ve missed important family events and planned vacations. If we, avid travelers, are not flying out of HTS this year, we suspect that few others are doing so.
On my initial visit to Huntington in 1975, I departed Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a fully booked Piedmont jet that arrived at Tri-State Airport an hour later. The HTS terminal was small and outdated, but it offered many non-stop flights to various destinations. Airline deregulation and demographic changes mean those days are history, but airline service in Huntington remains vital.
In 1976, my husband’s job was to chair and found the Department of Internal Medicine at the new Marshall medical school; this required recruiting dozens of physicians in the next few years. Most candidates flew into Huntington, and Maury’s orange VW beetle greeted each arrival at HTS. Tri-State Airport was integral in the Marshall medical school’s development, as it has been for many other businesses in this region.
Over the years, HTS has been our family’s gateway to dozens of American and foreign destinations. Our frequent-flier status from Huntington meant that in the 1990s we had earned enough “frequent flier” miles for a free trip from Huntington to New York and from New York to London on the now extinct but amazing Concorde, and currently, longtime TSA employees recognize us.
But we’re not flying now as is true for millions of Americans. According to this newspaper, 2.3 million people cleared TSA checkpoints on Aug. 19, 2019. On that date this year, just 587,000 did so.
The airline industry will again take off after the pandemic ends. When it does, our elected representatives in Congress, local officials and the public must ensure that American Airlines and other airlines will have a stable presence at Huntington’s Tri-State airport.