Spirit Airlines lifts fortunes of Arnold Palmer Regional Airport
Teresa Kennicutt beamed a sly smile as she waited in line at the Spirit Airlines ticket counter at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport.
“This is the third time I’ve been here this month. This is entirely too easy,” said Kennicutt, who stopped by on her way to the gym to buy a ticket at a bargain-basement price.Kennicutt, 55, of Derry is part of a phenomenal success story playing out at the Unity airport that officials say gets better by the day as a growing base of travelers is drawn by free parking, shorter gate lines and the promise of super low-cost airfares to destinations such as Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Fort Myers, Las Vegas and Chicago.
On this chilly, gray morning, it was an email alert about a ticket sale that brought Kennicutt to the airport, where she scored a one-way ticket to Orlando for $16.54.
“Can you believe it?” she asked.
Although her super-cheap fare was akin to scratching a winning lottery ticket, a quick check of Spirit’s website found the airfare from Latrobe to Las Vegas starts at a one-way base fare of $63 for a 7 a.m. flight on May 4.
Business exploded from 6,000 commercial passengers in 2010, the year before Spirit landed, to 244,618 last year.
“Spirit has been a very good fit for us. You wouldn’t believe how many people around here own condos in Myrtle Beach. I think it’s a situation where we fit a niche,” said Gabe Monzo, executive director of the Westmoreland County Airport Authority.
Employment at the airport that sits in the shadow of Chestnut Ridge has grown from 17 to 54 since Spirit landed. A recent study found the economic impact of the facility grew from “a little over $90 million in 2010 to about $150 million today,” Monzo said.
Nearby businesses share in the good fortune.
The owners of Sharkey’s Café, a half-mile from the airport, built an addition last year that expanded seating capacity by about 150.
“Business definitely has grown. I’ve spoken with a lot of passengers who have an hour or two before a flight who stop in for a bite to eat,” said manager Ben McMurdy.
It’s not just locals who take advantage of the airport.
Jen Knox, 32, of Steubenville, Ohio, drove there to wait for her 5-year-old son to arrive from Myrtle Beach with his grandfather, who lives there.
Knox said the cost of flying Spirit, coupled with free parking just 80 miles from their home, is far less than flying out of Pittsburgh International Airport, even though the Pittsburgh facility is 60 miles closer.
“You can’t drive (to South Carolina) for what you pay here,” she said.
Monzo said he spoke with a family of five who drove from New York state for a Spirit flight to Orlando.
“With the five of them, they figured they saved $500 on a trip to Disney,” he said.
Tom Temple, 65, drove three hours from Williamsport to catch a flight to visit his brother in Myrtle Beach. He said it would have cost him $700 to fly there on US Airways, compared with less than $300 he paid to Spirit.
Small but strong
Although the Westmoreland County airport is one of the smallest airports in Spirit’s portfolio, it is among the airline’s stellar performers. Last year, the Miramar, Fla.-based company gave the facility its “Station of the Year” award.
Industry analysts praise Spirit’s business model and its fleet of fuel-efficient Airbus jets, saying it may be the most solid low-cost carrier in the market today.
Airline officials have never looked back on their decision to enter the market via Westmoreland County in 2009 when they were repelled by the high fees at Pittsburgh International.
“We were convinced about the market but looking for the right airport where we could come in and offer low, low costs. We looked at Youngstown, Johnstown and Latrobe. Arnold Palmer had the right combination of access and low costs,” said Mark Kopczak, vice president of network planning for Spirit.
It had an airport staff committed to making it work.
“Latrobe is a smaller community, and local folks at Westmoreland helped us introduce our brand. People in your region get it,” Kopczak said. “We’re pulling from western Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and even western New York.”
Mike Boyd, president of BoydGroup International, is an aviation consultant who has worked with the airport. Spirit pursues new travelers in search of low prices rather than tapping into an existing pool of people, Boyd said.
“Spirit is collecting new, price-driven passengers from all over Western Pennsylvania. They could do it at Pittsburgh, but now that they are in Latrobe, and the costs are lower, they’ll stay,” he said.
There have been growing pains.
Despite the addition of 440 parking places last fall, the terminal lot overflows onto an old runway.
Responding to increasing traffic flow, PennDOT is spending $10 million to widen nearby Route 981 as airport officials plan to break ground on a terminal expansion in late 2015 or early 2016 to double its capacity. Officials are weighing a $15 million plan to widen and improve the runway.
Investing more than $20 million, based largely on a single carrier, is a gamble, officials concede.
John Strong, CSX professor of finance at the College of William and Mary, pointed to the Newport News Airport as an example of that risk.
Newport News doubled its size several years ago to accommodate the growing demands of AirTran Airways. When Southwest Airlines acquired the low-cost carrier and pulled out of Newport News, the airport had to lure other carriers with guarantees of subsidies. Despite those subsidies, traffic is down significantly, Strong said.
Aviation watchdog Brett Snyder of Long Beach, Calif., who blogs as “The Cranky Flier,” agreed that caution is merited.
“There is nothing that anchors an airline. Just because you build it, there’s no guarantee they’ll come,” Snyder said. “Airlines come and go. In particular, at smaller airports where it’s one or none, you run into concerns about ‘should we do this for this one?’ ”
This is not the Westmoreland County airport’s first experience with commercial carriers.
US Airways Express pulled out 11 years ago after offering flights from Latrobe to Pittsburgh from 1985 to 2004. Northwest Airlines began service to its Detroit hub in 2004, but that ended in 2009 when Delta Air Lines acquired Northwest.
Neither airline attracted more than a fraction of the volume Spirit posts.
Don Rossi, president of Westmoreland Mechanical Testing, has been flying since 1952 and served on the airport authority board for 30 years.
There’s a twinkle in his eye when he talks about Palmer’s recent growth, but he’s a hard-nosed realist when it comes to maintaining what the staff has built there.
“It’s all about what you can do for aviation; it’s not about what it can do for you,” Rossi said.
As recently as last year, there were misgivings when Spirit canceled service to Dallas-Fort Worth after 10 months because of low ridership. But that was a small bump, officials said.
If Spirit leaves, Latrobe’s performance and its proven ability to serve 300,000 passengers a year would make it an attractive partner for other airlines, Rossi and Monzo said.
“We have a lot of people who want to see this work,” Monzo said.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected].