Spirit to begin flying from Palmer airport to Dallas-Fort Worth

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In a little more than two weeks, Spirit Airlines, which began flights from the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to Florida in 2011, will spread its wings west.

Starting June 14, the airline will begin nonstop flights from the Unity-based airport to the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport in Texas.

Spirit, headquartered in Miami, now flies from the Unity airport to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The flights to Dallas will depart and return on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with one-time roundtrip fares ranging between $210 to $250, according to the Spirit website. but that doesn't include fees for baggage and advance seating.

Spirit also advertises a $9 fare for frequent fliers who join a club with an annual membership fee of $60. Parking is free at the airport.

"We're anxious to see how the Dallas flight does," said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, which operates the airport.

But so far, Spirit officials have already found their niche in the local market -- passenger traffic has grown rapidly over the past two years at the Palmer airport.

According to a report released earlier this month by the authority, more than 67,000 passengers have flown on Spirit Airlines in the first four months of 2013.

That is 50,000 more than the number who flew in the same period of 2012.

Service began to Fort Lauderdale in February 2011. Spirit added service to Myrtle Beach in May 2011 and expanded to Orlando in May 2012.

In its first year of operation, passengers totaled about 65,000 for the entire year. In 2012, passengers jumped to about 145,000.

And authority officials are expecting the Dallas flight to boost the numbers substantially.

"We estimate there are going to be 250,000 people in and out of here this year," Mr. Monzo said.

The authority is expanding the number of parking spaces at the airport, from 700 to about 900 to accommodate the new Dallas route.

Spirit flies two sizes of jets out of Latrobe, one carrying 145 passengers and a larger one that holds 175.

"I think their average is about 85 percent full or more," Mr. Monzo said.

"Right now, the flight to Myrtle Beach is big." he said. Myrtle Beach is a popular golf and resort area.

"That drops off in September and October," he said.

Here is the schedule at the airport on days when all four flights are flying:

• 10:44 a.m., flight from Fort Lauderdale arrives; 11:30 a.m., flight for Fort Lauderdale departs.

• 11:55 a.m., flight from Dallas arrives; 12:30 p.m., flight for Dallas departs.

• 2:25 p.m., flight from Myrtle Beach arrives; 3:10 p.m., flight for Myrtle Beach departs.

• 5:30 p.m., flight from Orlando arrives; 6:20 p.m., flight for Orlando departs.

"It's extremely busy," Mr. . Monzo said, but added there is plenty of room to accommodate the increase in passengers.

"Spirit is good, there is usually an hour of separation between flights," he said. "We usually only have one plane on the ground at the same time; we can do two, but we don't like to. It's great for the community and the region," he said.

Mr. Monzo said that PennDOT did a study of the economic impact of Spirit coming to the airport.

"The annual impact of the airport, with charter flights, was $95 million. But with Spirit Airlines that increased to $145 million. That includes all the spinoff jobs, at restaurants, hotels and providing services," he said.

The increased number of passengers has resulted in more part-time jobs at the airport, as well.

"It's our crew that services the planes. They are our employees," he said. "We now have 57 employees at the authority. They are the customer service and counter reps, the ground crew, baggage handlers and those cleaning the planes and stocking them with ice and materials," Mr. Monzo said.

Some of the work is seasonal, because some Spirit flights, such as the one to Myrtle Beach, are discontinued during some months of the year.

Spirit hires the mechanics, he noted. "They have a mechanic on duty here any time there is a plane here. If they need backup, they bring in extra people from Detroit," Mr. Monzo said.

The Federal Aviation Agency recently announced that the control tower at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport will remain open at least through September, which is the end of the federal fiscal year.

The FAA had said earlier this year that control towers at 149 smaller airports in the country would close under a sequestration budget bill that requires budget cuts to all federal departments. But those closings have been postponed several times.

This week, Mr. Monzo said, a newly purchased system to improve communication between pilots and nearby airports would be up and running, and that will help if the tower closes or during overnight hours when the tower is not manned.

That system, called GroundLink, which cost $10,000, will provide pilots with direct radio communications in the cockpit to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport or to the Cleveland Airport.

The Arnold Palmer control tower normally contacts one of those airports to obtain clearance for planes to take off or land because the local tower does not have radar.

Mr. Monzo said an engineering firm hired by the authority is also pursuing a possible Pittsburgh connector route in Pennsylvania. The firm will see if there is interest among airlines in providing regional service. The service would link smaller airports in the state, such as those in Williamsport, Harrisburg or Latrobe, to the metropolitan airports in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

"We're working on that," he said.

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Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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