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Southern Airways Express wants to offer Latrobe-Pittsburgh commuter service

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, 12:27 p.m.
Southern Airways Express once again has pushed back the start date for proposed flights from Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to Pittsburgh International Airport.
Southern Airways Express once again has pushed back the start date for proposed flights from Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Business travelers will be able to fly from Arnold Palmer Regional Airport near Latrobe to Pittsburgh International Airport by Christmas if a Memphis-based carrier goes through with plans to initiate the service.

Southern Airways Express has proposed four or more flights a day from the airport in Unity to Pittsburgh.

“We see our profile customer as needing to get to business destinations,” and Pittsburgh offers that with the many cities it serves, Mark R. Cestari, executive vice president for business development, told the Westmoreland County Airport Authority on Tuesday.

“Our business model is to connect with the legacy carriers and the low-cost carriers,” Cestari said, noting the U.S. airline industry has only three legacy carriers – United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines.

Southern Airways would fly a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan to Pittsburgh in 20 to 25 minutes in the early morning and evening, Cestari said.

“We have a big need for the business traveler. This will be a good connector from here to the world,” said Gabe Monzo, airport authority executive director.

The airport authority and Southern Airways will evaluate the feasibility of initiating service.

“We would certainly embrace a business travel service to Pittsburgh,” said Chad Amond, president of the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce,

By taking the commuter flight to Pittsburgh, Amond said, travelers from central and eastern Westmoreland County would save 90 minutes to two hours' driving time to Pittsburgh International Airport in Findlay.

David Martin, president of the Greater Latrobe-Laurel Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce, expects an airline link to Pittsburgh will be well-received by the business traveler “who doesn't want to make that long drive and pay for parking.”

At St. Vincent College, across U.S. Route 30 from the airport, spokesman Don Orlando is confident that the area's business travelers will support it

“The drive to Pittsburgh and the cost of parking is discouraging,” Orlando said, noting that travelers from Latrobe go through 25 traffic signals on Route 30 before reaching the Irwin exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Southern Airways has not set the fare for the Pittsburgh flights, Cestari said. The company charges $78 round-trip from Altoona to Pittsburgh. The carrier plans to offer companies a 10-ticket discount package that allows anyone in the firm to take the flight, without specifying a passenger at the time of purchase.

After compiling the travel and parking costs at Pittsburgh International, “it probably pays for the commuter flight” from Latrobe, Amond said.

Arnold Palmer Regional has not had commuter service since US Airways Express eliminated it in 2004. It's needed to improve connections between the county and Pittsburgh, Amond said. When Kennametal Inc. announced in September that it was moving its headquarters from a site adjacent to the airport to downtown Pittsburgh, one reason it cited is the proximity to the international airport, he said.

At Elliott Co. in Jeannette, an international firm, officials would consider a variety of factors before deciding whether to use a commuter airline service to Pittsburgh, said Tom Brown, a company spokesman.

Among them are the availability of connections from Pittsburgh to other destinations, luggage transfer and current corporate relationships with airlines, Brown said.

“It may not save money,” he said.

Monzo said the airport has the capacity to handle Southern's flights, which will require passengers to walk across the tarmac to board the plane. The airport is adding 270 parking spaces and will continue to offer free parking, an important draw for fliers, Monzo said.

Southern Airways provides regional service to Pittsburgh from Altoona, Bradford, Franklin and Lancaster, as well as Hagerstown, Md., and Jamestown, N.Y. The air carrier intends to add service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in October, Cestari said.

“Southern is expanding, and Pittsburgh is a focus,” Cestari said, adding that the airline believes it is a “strong market.”

Connecting with regional airports is part of Pittsburgh International's strategy, spokesman Bob Kerlik said.

“We're looking to expand to a lot of regional markets,” Kerlik said.

At the Altoona-Blair County Airport in Martinsburg, Southern Airways has been well-received since its predecessor, Sun Air Express, started flights to Pittsburgh in 2014, said Tracy Plessinger, airport manager.

“We found that our people have been very receptive to going back to Pittsburgh” since the demise of the US Airways commuter service, Plessinger said.

A 2 12-hour drive to Pittsburgh is a great incentive to take the commuter flight, she said.

Southern Airways' move to connect regional airports with hubs is filling a market niche created when the legacy carriers dropped service to smaller cities, said industry analyst Robert Mann of R.W Mann & Co. of New York.

“It's almost like back to the future, when airlines connected smaller airports to the larger ones,” Mann said. “They are using the major carriers to create their own market.”

Both Cestari and Monzo said Southern Airways' service would complement Arnold Palmer Regional's lone scheduled carrier, Spirit Airlines of Miramar, Fla. Spirt Airlines connects the county airport with vacation destinations in Florida and South Carolina

Although Southern Airways does not target the leisure traveler, the commuter flight would appeal to those headed to destinations not served by Spirit Airlines, Martin said.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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