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Talks resume for possible Latrobe-Pittsburgh flights

Jeff Himler
| Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 6:36 p.m.
A Southern Airways Express plane at Pittsburgh International Airport before a non-stop flight to Harrisburg in January 2017. (Contributed photo)
Pittsburgh International Airport
A Southern Airways Express plane at Pittsburgh International Airport before a non-stop flight to Harrisburg in January 2017. (Contributed photo)

The possibility of a second airline serving Arnold Palmer Regional Airport is back on the front burner as Southern Airways Express has reopened talks with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority about offering commuter flights from the Unity facility to Pittsburgh.

The carrier also has proposed flights from the Latrobe-area airport to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport in Anne Arundel County, Md.

After meeting with the authority in an executive session Tuesday, Southern Airways chief commercial officer Mark Cestari termed the discussion a “preliminary conversation, just to restart things in Latrobe.”

But he expressed hope his airline and airport officials can reach “some kind of decision” by July, which could set the stage for proposed flights to begin in the fall. Two flights to the Maryland airport and two to three to Pittsburgh would be likely each weekday, with slightly reduced service on weekends, according to Cestari.

Cestari said the airline has to gauge the interest level in the proposed flights while considering the costs of operating at Arnold Palmer.

“Fuel costs have been rising very rapidly in 2018,” he said. “We've got to factor that into our fare, so we haven't really determined the fares yet, and we don't have our cost here yet.

“There's a lot of pieces that have to come together.”

Airport Authority Chairman Don Rossi is heading a four-member committee that will evaluate the latest Southern Airways proposal over the coming weeks. “It's complicated because it costs money,” Rossi said.

“You've got to scrutinize it and make sure you're doing the right thing,” said Gabe Monzo, the authority's executive director.

About a year ago, Southern Airways began offering flights from the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport to Maryland's BWI instead of Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Officials at the Johnstown airport noted rates to BWI were cheaper as gate fees were rising at Dulles.

Southern Airways now counts BWI as one of its four hubs, as is Pittsburgh International Airport, Cestari said. BWI “has been a very successful destination for our other central Pennsylvania and West Virginia markets,” he said.

Spirit Airlines, which offers flights from Arnold Palmer to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and destinations in Florida, served 299,391 passengers at the Unity airport in 2017, up from 289,832 in 2016. Through May, an additional 132,131 passengers have arrived or departed on Spirit flights.

Cestari said he expects the proposed Southern Airways flights would complement, rather than compete with, the Spirit flights.

Rossi believes the suggested Southern Airways flights would add no more than 50 passengers per day to the volume attracted by Spirit.

But, before moving forward, he said, “We would certainly check with Spirit to see what they thought about the effect it would have on their business. We would not jeopardize what we're doing with Spirit for anybody at this point.”

Southern Airways initially proposed a commuter service from Arnold Palmer to Pittsburgh in 2016. But, Cestari said, it soon switched its expansion plans from the Mid-Atlantic to rural southern communities, where it took over service from competitors that shuttered operations in the face of a nationwide pilot shortage. Southern Airways felt the effects of the shortage but began a recruitment program that has doubled its pilot complement, adding 50 last year, Cestari said. The airline serves 22 cities.

Commuter flights between the Unity and Pittsburgh airports previously were offered from 1985 through July 2009 by subsidiaries of US Airways Express and then Northwest Airlines. Delta Airlines discontinued the service after purchasing Northwest.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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