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Kennametal move shouldn't hurt airport

| Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, 11:30 p.m.

A steady stream of business from Kennametal Inc. helped Ed Kilkeary Sr. start his aviation business at Latrobe's Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in 1980.

“They were our No. 1. customer,” said Kilkeary, 68, a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War who is founder and president of LJ Aviation. “We flew seven times a week for them. They were a big part of our growth.”

Today the company that was started with one helicopter counts 31 planes and 125 employees, but business from Kennametal has lessened considerably.

“It's a much different company today,” Kilkeary said of the toolmaker founded in Latrobe in 1938.

“Years ago, they did a lot of flying,” he said. “I flew them all over the U.S., Canada, some down to Mexico.”

Kennametal announced last week that it is moving its headquarters from Westmoreland County to the U.S. Steel Tower in November as it searches for a permanent Pittsburgh home.

The move “puts Kennametal in closer proximity to major universities, public transportation and the airport, while presenting us with new opportunities to innovate, grow and recruit new talent,” said Kennametal Chairman Bill Newlin.

The company will keep about 450 people at its Unity headquarters, including at its technical center.

A shift in business travel — away from smaller airports to the very largest — is being fueled by a pilot shortage, said aviation expert William Swelbar.

“There's a shortage of pilots to fly to the smallest markets,” he said. “That trend is not unique but will continue to grow for some time.”

The number of pilots with private certificates peaked at 357,000 in 1980, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick, Md. Since then that number has dropped to 195,000.

Interest in flying small planes has waned as costs climbed, experts said. New planes that cost about $13,000 in the late 1960s go for $250,000 or more, and owners pay more for specialized aviation fuel, liability insurance, maintenance and hangar space.

Officials at Vee Neal Aviation, another corporate shuttle service at Arnold Palmer, weren't available for comment, said a woman who answered the phone at the company's headquarters.

Airport officials said the loss of Kennametal-related flights will be felt in Westmoreland County, but the impact won't be as severe as in years past.

Most of the flights at Arnold Palmer are “leisure” with destinations such as Ft. Lauderdale or Orlando, said Gabe Monzo, the airport's executive director.

“We have a suitcase crowd,” he said. “We don't have the briefcase crowd.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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