Arnold Palmer airport eyes 2 millionth passenger, gets extra South Carolina flights
Westmoreland County officials are celebrating the arrival of the 2 millionth Spirit Airlines passenger at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, expected this month.
The low-cost carrier has provided the only commercial flight service at the Unity airport since 2011. As of Feb. 28, the number of incoming and outbound passengers since then totaled 1,989,799. With the monthly passenger count averaging more than 20,000 this year, the airport should easily reach the projected milestone before the end of March.
“It’s been quite a ride, and we’re going to continue to ride that train,” Westmoreland County Airport Authority Executive Director Gabe Monzo said Wednesday evening, speaking at a Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce function at the airport.
“Who would have thought an airport our size would be able to get such a viable, well-connected airline as Spirit,” Monzo said. “We’re extremely happy with the response that the people have given us.”
Spirit offers 50 flights a week, with up to 182 seats each, between Arnold Palmer Regional and destinations including Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Florida airports in Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.
The seasonal Myrtle Beach flights normally leave the Unity airport once daily, but will increase to twice daily departures on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, beginning in May, Monzo said.
Overall, the flights between Unity and Myrtle Beach will increase to about 20 per week, according to Spirit spokesman Derek Dombrowski. “We continue to see great demand for Myrtle Beach as a summer destination, and that seasonal service will likely run through November,” he said.
When negotiations were under way for Spirit to add the Unity airport to its schedule, Monzo calculated that at least 30,000 passengers a year would be needed to make the service viable. The airline’s response, he said: “If we don’t get 60,000 people a year, we’re leaving.”
The airport served 64,013 passengers in 2011, and the number continued to grow through 2015, when it nearly reached 356,000 . The passenger count slid to just under 290,000 in 2016. It’s a reversal officials have attributed to an economics-driven decision to drop nonstop flights from Arnold Palmer to Chicago and Las Vegas.
Since then, the passenger trend has been on the rise again, growing to just under 301,000 last year.
Acknowledging the support of local chambers of commerce, the county commissioners and the airport authority, Monzo said, “I think we’re at a place where we’re ready to move on. The airport has grown and the area around the airport has grown.”
There are two hotels within sight of the airport and an industrial park and several retail plazas nearby.
When the airport terminal was expanded in 1998, planners anticipated serving about 20,000 passengers a year.
This year, the airport authority is in the midst of a project to add a second passenger boarding bridge. It’s also set to widen the runway from 100 feet to 150 feet — providing pilots an extra margin of comfort when landing in poor weather, according to Monzo.
Last year, the authority resurfaced the runway, expanded airport parking and opened a new entrance connecting to a roundabout intersection on Route 981.
The county commissioners noted the county provides about $2 million in annual funding for the airport, but the facility, in return, pumps $200 million or more into the local economy.
“I wish I could find a stock that would give me that kind of dividend,” Commissioner Chuck Anderson said. “This airport really has been a juggernaut.
“That’s huge for our county,” Commissioner Gina Cerilli said. “The airport brings visitors from all over.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .