US Airways center in Moon may close, CEO tells pilots

Operations facility was built in 2008 with $16 million in government aid


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US Airways may jettison yet another Pittsburgh International Airport facility built specifically for its needs -- one financed with the help of more than $16 million in public subsidies.

In a meeting last week with pilots, US Airways CEO Doug Parker said the carrier may close its state-of-the-art operations control center in Moon in "a couple years" as a result of its merger with bankrupt American Airlines.

If Mr. Parker's prediction holds true, it would be the latest blow to a region that has seen US Airways slash more than 10,000 jobs and hundreds of flights over the past decade. The airline also eliminated its Pittsburgh hub in 2004 -- 12 years after the midfield terminal, built to its specifications, opened to support the airline's growing needs. US Airways now has about 1,800 employees in the region.

Closing the operations control center would cost the region another 700 jobs. 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.

To win the bid, the state and the county provided a $16.25 million incentive package that included $3 million in state and county grants, $12.5 million in loans and $750,000 in state tax credits tied to the number of jobs created by the project. The $25 million center was built by US Airways on land leased from the county. The airline agreed to a 20-year lease with two 10-year options.

With the American merger, Mr. Parker said, the new airline would not need operations centers in Pittsburgh and at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where American is headquartered.

He added that no decisions would be made for a couple of years and that the airline "would go through a process of determining what's the best one to have at that time," according to a transcript released by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"But anyway ... if I was talking to people in the [operations control center], what I'd tell them is that if we were betting right now it's only fair to tell people that, you know, Dallas has a bigger center, and [it's] more likely than not that you'd move there," he said.

"But that's not what happened last time, and it may not happen this time. Who knows? I don't want to prejudge it. But I also don't want to delude people into thinking that, 'oh, don't worry about it ... we're going to keep it in Pittsburgh.' "

Mr. Parker, who will serve as CEO of the new airline, which will be named American, said that if the Moon center closes, the employees there would be offered jobs in Dallas.

In a statement Monday, US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher stressed that no decision has been made on how the combined airline "would be controlled operationally."

"Doug's intent was to be as genuine as possible with our employees, but even as he stated, it is too early to prejudge what will happen as it relates to our facilities in Pittsburgh," he said.

Mr. Parker's comments came as Allegheny County and airport authority officials gear up to make a push to preserve the center -- and perhaps even expand it -- and also keep more than 900 jet maintenance jobs here. US Airways does heavy maintenance work at the airport under a lease that runs until the end of 2015.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he is working with congressional and state delegations, business leaders and others to try to keep all of the jobs. But he did not sound optimistic.

"Both of those job centers are something we're concerned about," he said. "We're doing everything we can to preserve those jobs."

Mr. Fitzgerald said he has had discussions with US Airways about the operations center and didn't get "a good sense" about its future. He said he was told by airline officials that they didn't want to keep two centers and that they would choose the one "more in line with their needs."

"Just the way they said it was concerning," he said.

The county, he said, may consider offering US Airways incentives to keep the center in Pittsburgh, although he could not offer any specifics. "I guess at this point we're evaluating all of the options," he said.

Dennis Davin, the county's economic development director, said he wants to build a case to US Airways to close the Dallas center, move those jobs here, and double or triple the size of the facility in Moon. He stressed that the Moon closing is not a done deal and that Mr. Parker said as much.

"We have to be prepared for the worst, but we're also going to do everything we can to keep the jobs and actually increase the number of jobs here," he said.

State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, whose district includes Moon, said he is exploring whether US Airways could be forced to pay back the public subsidies awarded to build the center if it is closed.

"We're still looking at the logistics of it, but I think it's an option we've got to begin to explore given [Mr. Parker's] comments," said Mr. Smith, an airport authority board member.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has talked to US Airways about the center and has met with elected and business leaders to discuss the situation, spokeswoman Kelli Roberts said. He is committed to "a positive outcome," she said.

Danny Persuit, president of Transport Workers Union Local 545, which represents 165 workers at the operations center, said he would not be surprised to see the facility closed, although he has not been told anything by the company. He believes the new airline wants the center to coexist with its Dallas headquarters.

The Dallas-Fort Worth operations center, Mr. Persuit said, is being renovated, with much of it being modeled after the Pittsburgh facility. "It's surprisingly like our office," he said.

While some employees are concerned about the closing of the center, he estimated that probably 70 percent of his members would transfer to Dallas.

Bill Hollowood, chairman of Potomac Air Lodge 1976 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said he believes Pittsburgh will remain a heavy maintenance center for Airbus jets even with the merger. He said American has just started buying Airbus planes.

"The mindset is that more than likely Pittsburgh will prevail as a maintenance station for Airbus for a long while. That's the general thought in the hangar," he said. Like Mr. Persuit, Mr. Hollowood has had no formal communication with the airline to relay to his members.

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Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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