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Pilot communications system installed at Arnold Palmer Regional

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 1:48 p.m.

While passenger numbers steadily climb at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, officials are installing a system to improve communications safety while the air-traffic control tower's fate is still in limbo.

In a monthly report of passenger numbers released Tuesday by the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, 67,026 people have flown from the Unity airport on commercial carrier Spirit Airlines in the first four months of 2013. This is 50,000 more than the number of passengers who flew in the first four months of 2012 — which totaled 17,161 — and more than the entire number of passengers in 2011, which totaled 64,013.

Spirit has served more than 277,695 passengers at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport since service began to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in February 2011. It added service to Myrtle Beach in May 2011; expanded to Orlando in May 2012; and will add three weekly non-stop flights to Dallas-Fort Worth beginning June 13.

Seasonal service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., began in February, three months earlier than planned.

Meanwhile, the GroundLink system, purchased from a Minneapolis-based company, will enable pilots to communicate directly with airports in Johnstown and Cleveland from the aircraft when the Unity control tower is closed overnight, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Previously, a pilot had to call the airports using a public telephone to receive permission and a time for takeoff, authority board chairman Don Rossi said.

“This gives the pilot a direct line to Johnstown and Cleveland, and he does it when he's ready,” he said.

The $10,000 system will be paid for with part of an equipment grant. The $8,950 unit cost $1,200 to install.

The system would become more significant if the control tower would close in the wake of federal funding cuts because of budget sequestration. The tower was among 149 on the closure list at regional airports throughout the country released in late March,

On Friday, the federal Department of Transportation announced that all towers will remain open at least through Sept. 30, the end of the federal budget year.

“That's great news for everybody — especially us,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the authority. “We'll see what's going to happen in September.”

Rossi said the authority has been working on obtaining and installing the system for three months and did its first communication tests on Monday.

Using a phone line, a pilot will call one of the neighboring airports and receive a window in a number of minutes for takeoff. Rossi explained that within that window, the pilot would have to prepare the plane, do all required safety checks and take off.

He said the system will save fuel because pilots will no longer have to wait for the time window.

Rossi said he is glad to have the additional GroundLink system in place but hopes the tower acts as a main line of communication.

“It's a sad and a hard thing to talk about with no towers, but we're ahead of the ball,” he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660.

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