Early birds like Beckley resident Robin Blankenship took advantage of a free flight to Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday as part of ViaAir's new service out of Raleigh County Memorial Airport. 

Blankenship said she was making a "test run" to visit her husband in Florida. 

"I'm hoping this takes off and I can use it," she said. Blankenship said being able to fly from Raleigh County Memorial means she won't have to go to Charleston to catch a plane. She's also hoping her husband can use the service on his trips home. 

That's what airport manager Tom Cochran wants to hear. 

"The more people we can put on an aircraft, the better airfare will be for all of us, wherever you go," Cochran said. Cochran said having ViaAir on the ground in Raleigh County is a good thing for several reasons. "They're about safety, they're about punctual travel, they're about dependability."

ViaAir took over commercial flights here after United Express announced in April it would no longer provide air service to southern West Virginia. About 20 people took advantage of the one-day free flight to Charlotte, Cochran said. But, he said, ViaAir isn't only focused on getting area residents to another destination, the company's owners have visions of bringing the world to Raleigh County. 

"That enhances our tourism, gives us economic benefits to our area, and also opens southern West Virginia to the rest of the world," he continued. 

Mitch Pizik, ViaAir's executive vice-president of sales and marketing, has already made the pitch to "the rest of the world. Pizik said ViaAir announced a travel package combining airfare and lodging for the Beckley-area market at a trade show in London three weeks ago. 

"(We) launched Beckley and Adventure Air Cruise for whitewater rafting," Pizik said, noting that 40 percent of the airline's bookings — mostly from Asian markets, Denmark, Spain and England — are done in London. "We're expecting a lot of international visitors this summer."

ViaAir president Irit Vizer is as excited as Cochran about the new service. Vizer was also the flight attendant for the first 45-minute trip to Charlotte and she's a student pilot, as well. 

Pizik said cross-training in the company is essential. 

"The only way to really run a company is to experience everybody's positions," he said. 

True, said Vizer. 

"You have to know how to check in people; you have to know how to be the flight crew," she said. 

In October, Vizer announced plans to construct an aircraft maintenance hub near the airport; the hub will be large enough to service a Boeing 737 and is expected to bring 50 new jobs to the area. New River Community and Technical College will offer classes in aircraft maintenance at its new location near the airport. 

— Email: ppritt@register-herald.com Follow PamPrittRH on Twitter

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