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Northwest spreads its wings

| Tuesday, April 5, 2005

DETROIT -- Northwest Airlines' first flight out of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport was all business Monday.

But airline officials expect that a mix of passengers will use the new service now that it's up and flying to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Michigan.

With few exceptions, the 21 passengers who boarded the inaugural flight from the airport in Unity Township were more representative of the cell phone and laptop crowd than the sightseeing set.

But they were no less happy to get off the ground.

"This is beautiful," said Scott Kolat, of North Huntingdon Township, who was headed for Newark, N.J., yesterday. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time."

Kolat, a national sales trainer with U.S. Food Service, said he flies "about 150 times a year, and until today, all of it was out of Pittsburgh. So I've been looking forward to this for a long time. This is just so much better for me."

A former US Airways customer, Kolat said he switched to Northwest "at the first of the year, and the service has been great. I've been nothing but pleased."

He also applauded the convenience of flying from the airport located near Latrobe.

"I will be able to manage all of my flights through here, and I will. I'm done with Pittsburgh," Kolat said. "It's the convenience. When you land in Pittsburgh, you think you're home, but you're not. You've still got quite a drive ahead of you."

A local landing was also a key selling point for Jay Policastro, of Classic Industries in Latrobe. He was meeting with clients in Detroit yesterday.

"I'm flying back home on the 9 p.m. flight," Policastro said. "I'll have a short walk to my car and be able to sleep in my own bed."

The business-heavy makeup of passengers yesterday didn't surprise Thomas Becher, media relations manager with Northwest.

"It's a Monday, and it's mid-afternoon," Becher said. "But we do expect to see a good mix of business and leisure travelers in the future."

No matter why they're flying, a different world awaits local passengers landing at Northwest's WorldGateway hub in Detroit.

Disembarking from the 34-seat Saab 340 twin turboprop airplane, travelers enter a $1.2 billion terminal that opened in 2002 and is still growing.

The 16 gates at the terminal's B and C concourses will be expanded to 39 by the end of October. Meanwhile, the two-mile-long main concourse offers another 78 gates for the 577 daily flights that take passengers to more than 160 destinations.

"This airport was built solely on passenger input," said Emmett Steadman, a customer service manager with the airline. And despite its sprawling size, the terminal's layout is "very simple. Everything's in a straight line."

Moving walkways and overhead trams mean that "all connecting gates are always only a couple of minutes away," Steadman added.

It's a stark contrast to the flight's point of origin. No one has flown out of Latrobe on a commercial flight since July, when US Airways Express pulled out after nearly 20 years of commuter flights to Pittsburgh International Airport in Allegheny County.

"It has been a long nine months," admitted Gabe Monzo, manager of Arnold Palmer Regional.

"We were put to the task of reinstating scheduled service from this airport," Monzo said. "The agreement with Northwest provides the best that we could ask for. We are happy with their commitment."

The airport is under a one-year deal with Northwest Airlink partner Mesaba Airlines, which will provide three daily flights to the Detroit hub.

"I've been looking at their fares daily, and this is a much better service than we have ever had here," added Gene Lakin, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority. "People just need to try it."

That would please Sabrina Murray, one of the 10 Transportation Security Administration screeners that have returned to work at Arnold Palmer Regional.

"It's nice to see passengers back," Murray said.

"We've spent the last nine months at Pittsburgh, and it was fine," she added. "But it's really good to be back. We need to keep this place busy, the way it should be."

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