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West Mifflin mayor seeks to use county airport 'to its fullest potential'

| Thursday, April 17, 2014, 4:46 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
Consol Energy is drilling for natural gas at Pittsburgh International Airport but has no plans to drill at Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin. But it set aside $2.28 million in escrow that could be released for use at County Airport if Allegheny County Council approves a lease there by Feb. 21. County Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, has proposed such a lease and West Mifflin borough officials are backing his effort.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
This plane from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland flew over McKeesport while practicing landings and takeoffs at Allegheny County Airport, officials told Maury Burgwin of Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce. Burgwin supports the idea of bringing a discount commercial airline to County, an idea floated by West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Trib Total Media
West Mifflin officials said improvements could be made to the Allegheny County Airport terminal, including adding office space and a restaurant, with $2.28 million in upfront bonus payments from Consol Energy, now sitting in escrow.

West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly wants Allegheny County Airport used for discount commercial airline service.

In a letter to acting Allegheny County Airport Authority executive director James R. Gill, Kelly suggested new discussions “about the possibility of utilizing the County Airport to its fullest potential.”

Kelly flew Spirit Airlines four times from Westmoreland County's Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in the past year.

“Each flight was filled near capacity and each occasion I knew several of the travelers, all of whom were from Allegheny County,” Kelly wrote. “With the economic rebound, people are starting to travel by air more often. The timing is right to include the Allegheny County Airport.”

At Tuesday's West Mifflin council meeting, Kelly said the authority agreed to a meeting but no date was set.

“At this time, there is nothing to report,” airport authority spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny responded in an email.

Still, Kelly's letter encourages those who want a return of commercial activity to what remains the seventh busiest airport in Pennsylvania.

It has 75,000 takeoffs and landings per year, according to the authority, which runs County and Pittsburgh International airports.

“It would be fabulous,” Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce president Maury Burgwin said. “(County) is a unique asset to our region.”

With its 6,500-foot runway, Burgwin said, “You can bring a (Boeing) 737 in there. There aren't a whole lot of airports in this region that could handle an airplane of that size.”

Airport officials told Burgwin a jet from Maryland did practice landings last week.

“It was a crew out of Andrews Air Force Base,” Burgwin said. “They were practicing touch and gos on that runway.”

The plane resembled Air Force One. It circled downtown McKeesport during that flight.

Burgwin, who lives in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood, can get to County in 20 minutes but needs 45 to get to Pittsburgh International.

“You have to go through the tunnels, you have to go through the city, you have to deal with the parking,” Burgwin said.

The Mon Yough chamber president had experience with County years ago.

“Back in the day I used to work for (the late Gateway Clipper owner) John Connelly,” Burgwin recalled. “He had a private plane. We flew out of there often.”

Challenged about whether County can handle commercial flights, Kelly pointed to the West Mifflin airport's role as primary Federal Aviation Administration-designated reliever airport for Pittsburgh International Airport.

In that role the airport authority said County supports a high volume of business and corporate-related activity.

“The president flew here,” Kelly added, referring to President Obama's use of County for helicopter shuttles when he spoke Jan. 29 at U.S. Steel's Irvin Plant.

Kelly said then that a letter he wrote to the White House in December may have influenced Obama's decision to come to West Mifflin during a two-day stump following his State of the Union address.

Burgwin's counterpart at Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce said Spirit Airlines raised the number of flights in and out of Palmer Airport from 8,000 just a few years ago to 250,000 to 300,000 a year.

“Just in the airport area there have been some new commercial developments,” Westmoreland Chamber president Chad Amond said. “There's the Springhill Suites. Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. has an air park there. There have been a few businesses that have located there.”

And there's a longtime eatery at Palmer Airport.

“You talk to DiNunzio's,” Amond said. “They've been booming as a result of the Spirit Airlines' impact.”

Officials in Westmoreland County want to improve highway access to Palmer Airport, with a campaign that sounds a lot to Burgwin like the effort in Allegheny County to move the Mon/Fayette Expressway north from Jefferson Hills.

Amond said his chamber long advocated a Laurel Valley Connector, from the Pennsylvania Turnpike at New Stanton and Mt. Pleasant to Route 981 near the Unity airport.

“It would take their trip from the airport, which now is about 45-48 minutes with traffic, down to about 18-22 minutes,” Amond said.

Kelly sent copies of his letter to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, and state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport.

Fitzgerald's office did not provide comment. Fitzgerald spent Wednesday with Obama on his trip with Vice President Joe Biden to the Community College of Allegheny County West Hills campus near the international airport.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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