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Trends in the air travel industry have not been kind to Tri-State Airport. A place that once offered services by regional carriers to hubs in Charlotte, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and elsewhere is now down to one hub and flights to tourist destinations in Florida.

That could change in the near future, however. An opportunity has come up to add Chicago and Washington, D.C., to Tri-State’s offerings, but the carrier wants local buy-in.

Tri-State Airport Director Brent Brown told Herald-Dispatch reporter Fred Pace he receives numerous calls about when the new service to Chicago and Washington will begin, but it will not be anytime soon.

“Everyone is aware of the $750,000 grant award to be used to recruit, initiate and support new air service to Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Washington-Dulles International Airport. However, the other piece of the $750,000 is a local match. They want to see a minimum of a million dollars, and we have three-quarters of that with the grant. The $250,000 match cannot come from the airport; it must come from the community,” he said.

Brown says the airport will now make a push to fundraise the needed additional funds, preferably smaller commitments from a large number of businesses instead of large commitments from a few. Airlines want to see broad-based support, he said.

The simple fact is that the past two years have been difficult ones for the air travel industry, thanks to COVID-19. Given how many airlines have been canceling flights this month because of the pandemic, it doesn’t appear things will get better soon. Smaller commercial airports such as Tri-State could bear the brunt of airline cutbacks, as few carriers will look to expand into smaller markets when they have difficulty serving larger ones.

But COVID-related problems are only the most recent ones holding back expansion at Tri-State. The loss of corporate headquarters in this market in the past 30 years — the former Ashland Inc., the former Ashland Coal, Special Metals and others — cannot have helped Tri-State in the business travel market.

In the long run, Tri-State could find a larger niche as a large general aviation airport or in the air freight business. Or maybe in aircraft-related services. Or all three. Why not? But passenger service must always remain a priority.

The next six months could be important ones for Tri-State if the travel industry recovers from this latest hit from COVID. There should be other opportunities for expansion if this one doesn’t work out. In any case, Tri-State Airport plays an important role in the local economy and needs local support if it is to maintain the status quo, let alone expand.

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