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Jet delay may stall regional flights

| Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The first MidAtlantic Airways flight at Pittsburgh International Airport may not happen this year, but not because of US Airways' threat to locate the regional jet base elsewhere.

Federal approval of a key jet in the MidAtlantic fleet, the Embraer 170, has been delayed by two months, which has raised questions at US Airways about whether the new jets will begin to arrive as expected at Pittsburgh International in the fall or early 2004.

Embraer, of Brazil, intended to deliver the first of US Airway's order for 85 of the newly developed jets in November, but Chief Executive David Siegel said in a recorded company message Friday the airline is not sure that timeline is intact.

"US Airways is working with Embraer to determine the impact, if any, on MidAtlantic plans to start operating the aircraft in the first quarter of 2004," Siegel said.

MidAtlantic initially was slated to start flying in fall 2002, but the airline pushed back its start to the fourth quarter of 2003.

MidAtlantic Airways spokesman John Ellis said despite earlier reports of launching the division this fall, the airline did not expect to begin flying passengers until early 2004. He cited holiday down time and employee training as the primary reasons.

"We're proceeding with plans to take delivery of the airplane in November and start operating next year," he said.

Embraer, of Brazil, said last week it expects the Federal Aviation Administration's approval to manufacture the new aircraft to be delayed from September to November. Subsequently, the company pushed back 22 of its 132 plane orders this year into 2004.

The Federal Aviation Administration must certify that the plane meets specific standards before Embraer can manufacture and sell it to companies in the United States. US Airways said the setback is due to a change with the jet's aviation software. Messages left Monday with the FAA seeking comment were not returned.

The MidAtlantic service is crucial to Pittsburgh International, which has lost 192 daily US Airways flights since January 2002. The drop has left portions of the airport virtually vacant and forced the Allegheny County Airport Authority to begin closing the commuter terminal as a cost-saving measure. Flights will be shifted into the other concourses over the summer.

The start of MidAtlantic in Pittsburgh also could bring about 500 new airline jobs. US Airways employs 7,800 people at Pittsburgh International; 14,000 statewide.

The authority did not comment on the apparent change.

The regional jets are a better fit to smaller passenger loads and would fly point-to-point, rather than stopping in other cities.

US Airways formed the MidAtlantic division as it restructured under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

However, the airline pulled back on its pledge as it emerged from the Chapter 11 protection on March 31, canceling its $62 million in annual leases and contracts at Pittsburgh International. The cancellation is effective next January if the airport cannot cut the airline's operating costs there.

The airline and a team of negotiators from across the state began talks last week in Harrisburg. The airline's officials want $864 million in airport improvements, lower airport costs and jet plane parts at both of its hub airports in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The state has responded with a $263.9 million offer that demands the airline keep strong levels of flights and employees at both airports in return for the financial incentives.

MidAtlantic would help rejuvenate airline and authority revenues.

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