US Airways to close Moon flight operations center, affecting 600 jobs

Built less than six years ago, a state-of-the-art flight operations control center in Moon will be closing and the work transferred to Texas, a casualty in the American Airlines-US Airways merger.

American Airlines announced Friday that it intends to consolidate flight operations in Dallas-Fort Worth over the next 18 months, costing the region a facility built specifically for the needs of US Airways and the 600 jobs that go with it.

"It's pretty sad for the people that have been here for a long time," said Danny Persuit, president of Transport Workers Union Local 545, which represents 164 employees at the center.

In a separate action, American also plans to transfer 53 mechanics out of Pittsburgh in what it said was an annual maintenance "rebalancing" unrelated to the merger.

American said that flight operations employees who want to transfer to Dallas will be guaranteed jobs. Those who do not will be offered severance packages, airline spokesman Todd Lehmacher said.

In a letter delivered to employees Friday, Tim Campbell, American's senior vice president of air operations, said he expects to complete the transfer within 18 months. Some support employees may relocate before the end of the year, but the majority will move after that. American has its own operations control center in Dallas-Fort Worth.

"Consolidating our two operations centers into one team, adjacent to our primary flight training center and our corporate headquarters, is the right decision for our business and our customers and a necessary step in our mission to make the new American the world's best airline," Mr. Campbell wrote.

"I don't think there was anything wrong with Pittsburgh. It was just the right decision for our business and our customers in the new American [to consolidate in Texas]," Mr. Lehmacher added.

Friday's announcement came nearly a year after US Airways CEO Doug Parker, who assumed the same role with American, hinted that the center might close as a result of the merger. It also came despite intensive lobbying by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and members of the local congressional delegation.

The 72,000-square-foot building opened in November 2008 after Pennsylvania and Allegheny County officials outbid Charlotte, N.C., and Phoenix for the facility. It combined a center in Findlay that US Airways had operated for 11 years and a smaller one in Phoenix, the result of the carrier's 2005 merger with America West Airlines. It was built with the help of $3.75 million in state grants and tax credits.

After US Airways' 20-year lease ends, the Airport Authority will assume control of the building. What will happen to the lease is yet to be determined.

Mr. Fitzgerald said the announcement wasn't a surprise, given Mr. Parker's past statements, but that did little to lessen the sting.

"It's not good news, that's for sure," he said. "It wasn't anything totally unexpected. We've been doing everything we can to keep it. When the merger went through, the writing was on the wall."

Once American is gone, the county intends to try to market the building for another use, Mr. Fitzgerald said. He expects interest from companies moving into the region.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said the political leaders argued that the Pittsburgh center had an excellent reputation and could be expanded and that it made sense for American to make use of it. But in the end such arguments had little effect.

"I don't think it's the right move for them, but they've made their decision. We're very disappointed, but I don't think anyone was surprised," he said.

Gov. Tom Corbett pledged to help with the marketing of the facility and job retraining for employees who don't want to move.

The decision marks the latest blow to a region that has seen US Airways slash more than 10,000 jobs and hundreds of flights over the last decade. In 2004, it eliminated its hub at the airport's midfield terminal -- a $1 billion facility built in the early 1990s specifically to meet US Airways' growing needs. American now has about 1,800 employees in the region, but that will fall to 1,200 with the loss of the flight center jobs.

Mr. Persuit said he expects a "large portion" of the employees he represents to relocate. But he added they are still waiting for details about the type of moving package the airline will offer. The union also is waiting for details about a severance package.

Although many will relocate, employees as a whole preferred to remain in Pittsburgh, he said. Referring to American's desire to have the center near its headquarters, he noted that the operations control facility has worked in Pittsburgh even though the airline's headquarters has been near Washington, D.C., and in Phoenix in the past.

"I wouldn't necessarily agree that it had to come to this," he said.

Bill Hollowood, chairman of Potomac Air Lodge 1976 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents about 110 workers at the center, said the mood among his members is "guarded."

"It's definitely a major event. Pittsburgh, Robinson Township lose some skilled high-paying jobs and that's a shame. I understand business first, but the human side of it is not good," he said.

Mr. Lehmacher said the number of mechanics in Pittsburgh has been "elevated" the last few years because of heavy maintenance work but that such maintenance is now nearing the end of its cycle.

But Mr. Hollowood attributed the transfers to the numerous flight cutbacks in Pittsburgh over the last decade. He said American could have accommodated the current employees by bringing other types of maintenance work into Pittsburgh.

As for the operations center, Bernadette Puzzuole, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed hope that "other airlines are going to be looking to this building. It's a state-of-the-art facility."

The loss of the center "can have a devastating effect on the area," she said, noting employees "shop in our stores and have kids in our schools and eat in our restaurants."

The housing market could take a hit, too, she said, if employees move to Dallas.

Laura Schisler, a member of the Moon Area school board, said Chevron's proposed regional headquarters at the former Kmart Super Center site in Moon is the kind of development that could help offset the loss. The school district also includes Crescent.

"We have a lot of good things happening here. ... Hopefully, we're not an airline-dependent township anymore," she said.

Ms. Puzzuole said the announcement is "another example of how we've been taken advantage of by US Airways."

After US Airways abandoned Pittsburgh as a hub, the region gave tax breaks for the operations center, and the airline is taking that away, too, she said.

"I'm not shocked about it," she said. "I'm sorry."

Ms. Schisler said she hopes the economic impact will be blunted partly by the options available to airline employees. While some employees may take jobs in Dallas, she said, others may retire or choose to commute to their new jobs from Pittsburgh.

"That happens a lot," she said.

The economic impact potentially will be felt not only in Moon but in other districts and municipalities, including Findlay, that are home to operations center employees.

Finday supervisors chairman Thomas Gallant, a US Airways flight attendant who has worked for the airline for 30 years, said loss of the operations center is "just another nail in the coffin of a world-class, first-class airport that's just been reduced to a ghost town."

In days when it was a hub, he said, the airport was so crowded that passengers "could not even move during the big traffic time."

Loss of the employees is troublesome, he said, because many are deeply involved in their communities. "We're going to lose that talent," he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262. Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.

First Published January 24, 2014 1:03 PM

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