Airport in Westmoreland County celebrates successes

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It’s been a good year for Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Westmoreland County — the Navy’s Blue Angels are coming for the air show in June; the number of passengers is expected to reach 250,000, and Greyhound bus service to and from the airport to Downtown is now available.

Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which operates the airport in Unity, attended the annual International Air Show Convention in Las Vegas a few weeks ago and came home with a commitment from the Blue Angels to appear at the Westmoreland Air Show on June 7-8, 2014, and in June 2015.

“The Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds are both good, and you need them to attract the crowds to the air show,” Mr. Monzo said. "Any time you can get an F-16 jet or an F-18 jet for a show, that’s exciting."

The 2013 Westmoreland County Air Show this past summer had to be canceled after the federal government’s sequestration budget cuts grounded the Thunderbirds and all other nonessential military flights. Without them, the air show wouldn’t work, Mr. Monzo said.

The Blue Angels' fee to perform is $12,000, he said, but the publicity value of the Angels is worth much more than that for the airport.

“The marketing value is out of this world. You get people to come here and see our airport and all the Spirit [Airlines] flights we have,” he said.

“It’s really a necessity to go to the convention to get anything booked,” Mr. Monzo noted. "You can attend seminars on sponsorships and safety as well."

In addition to the elite jet performance group, the air show will have five other flying acts. 

The Blue Angels performed at the county’s 2012 air show. In 2011, the two-day air show attracted 100,000 people to the airport, with a total of about 150,000 people watching from surrounding areas, such as Saint Vincent College.

The air show costs the authority about $300,000 to put on — including rooms, transportation and meals for the Blue Angel flight pilots and support crew and the personnel for the other acts.

Each year, the authority makes a donation to a local charity from the air show proceeds.

“We’re going to have the Wounded Warriors group be the beneficiary this year,” he said. “We’re happy about that; they are a good group that helps our veterans, so we think they will be a good fit for this area.”

Spirit Airlines has been attracting a record number of passengers to the airport this year with flights to more destinations.

“We’re going to be close to 250,000 passengers this year,” Mr. Monzo said.

The airport had 145,000 passengers in 2012 and 65,000 in 2011.

Spirit began flights to Florida from the airport in 2010, and the airline now flies nonstop to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Fla.; Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Dallas flights began this summer.

“They are doing pretty well,” Mr. Monzo said. “They are busy, and people are finding out they can continue on to Las Vegas on Spirit, too.”

The most popular flights by far are still the ones to Myrtle Beach, he said, which operate from February through November.

“It’s a busy, busy flight; it’s been super successful. Some people go to golf, others just go in November to enjoy the beach and warmer weather.

“Fort Lauderdale and Orlando are all good numbers throughout the year; there are three or four flights a week, and Spirit’s planes are almost all full.” The airline uses two different jets that can hold 150 to 175 passengers.

In November, the airport added an important transportation link for airline customers. The airport is now a stop for Greyhound buses headed to and from the Downtown bus terminal.

Airport officials contacted Greyhound, and the bus company agreed to move a stop from a street corner in Downtown Latrobe to the airport terminal, where people can wait inside and have access to concessions and facilities.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who fly in on Spirit to get to Downtown Pittsburgh,” Mr. Monzo said.

Greyhound buses from Pittsburgh stop twice a day at the terminal, heading east to Philadelphia and New York, with a prior stop in Greensburg. Two daily buses that head west to Pittsburgh also stop at the airport.

Another convenience for customers using the airport is free parking. Mr. Monzo said parking spaces were added late last year for a total of 1,100.

Mr. Monzo also said the Federal Aviation Administration has committed to paying for six employees to operate the control tower at the airport until March. The FAA had threatened to pull the plug on funding earlier this year because of federal sequestration budget cuts but relented after lobbying from county officials and local lawmakers.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer:

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