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Drilling boom feeds need for flights between Pittsburgh and small airports

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 1:39 p.m.

The boom in drilling for Marcellus shale natural gas is fueling a demand for more flights between Pennsylvania's smaller airports and Pittsburgh International Airport, officials said Tuesday.

“The Marcellus shale is the driving force behind the (commuter) service. We think it will be a viable service,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority and chairman of the Pennsylvania Air Service Committee.

Providing scheduled commercial service to Pittsburgh International from the state's 13 regional airports remain a priority for the Air Service Committee, Monzo said on Tuesday after an airport authority meeting at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.

The challenge is to find an airline that wants to operate the service and can turn a profit, Monzo added.

Pittsburgh is an attractive airport for companies involved in the natural gas industry because it offers flights to Houston, Monzo said. Natural gas production companies based in Texas and Oklahoma established operations in Western and Northeastern Pennsylvania in the past decade as the firms began extracting gas from the Marcellus shale reserves.

Pittsburgh International has service to Houston through United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines will begin flights from Pittsburgh to Houston in April, said airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny.

“That's a growing market (for airlines) in Pennsylvania,” Jenny said.

The air service committee, which is part of the state Bureau of Aviation, has presented several airlines with information about connecting Greater Pittsburgh with the regional airports, including Arnold Palmer Regional, Harrisburg International Airport, the Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown and Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport, which serves the gas-producing region in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Monzo said.

“We feel that if we can make that happen, Pittsburgh will get more service to business destinations,” such as cities in Ohio, Monzo said. “That's the whole idea.”

Arnold Palmer Regional did have commuter service to Pittsburgh International via a seven-passenger plane during the 1980s and 1990s. That Pittsburgh connection attracts the “briefcase” passengers, while those booking Spirit Airlines flights to Florida and Myrtle Beach, S.C., are the “suitcase” passengers because they are staying longer, Monzo said.

Kelly Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Regional Airline Association, a Washington-based trade group that represents 31 regional carriers, could not be reached for comment.

A connector flight to Pittsburgh would increase the passenger load at Arnold Palmer Regional, which served 12,427 passengers in January, up from 4,182 passengers in January 2012.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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